Firefighters’ Health: Long-Term Impact of Smoke & Chemical Exposure

Firefighters Health

Firefighters are exposed to a wide range of harmful chemicals and pollutants during their work. These can include the combustion products of burning materials and the chemicals used in firefighting foams.

Exposure to these chemicals can have a significant impact on firefighters’ health, both in the short term and the long term. 

This article explores the profound impact of smoke and chemical exposure on firefighters’ health, shedding light on the potential long-term consequences they face.

Types of Chemicals and Pollutants Exposure Firefighters Face

Firefighters face a multitude of chemicals and pollutants during firefighting operations, comprising both combustion byproducts and substances found in firefighting foams and equipment.

According to Science, toxic gases, heat, and lack of oxygen are the primary lethal elements in uncontrolled fires. Carbon monoxide, a byproduct of burning wood and cellulosic materials, is the main toxic gas. 

The growing use of synthetic polymers has sparked interest in evaluating the toxicity of thermally decomposed polymeric materials. However, a standardized fire toxicity test protocol currently needs to be present in this country.

Furthermore, certain firefighting foams, specifically those containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), have raised concerns. 

TruLaw notes that PFAS are persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals used for their fire suppression properties. However, they have been linked to adverse health effects, including cancer, endocrine disruption, and immune system disorders. The use of Aqueous Film-Forming Foams (AFFF), which contain PFAS, has been a subject of controversy and litigation.

The AFFF lawsuit is being initiated by individuals who were exposed to firefighting foam and later diagnosed with cancer or other health issues. The lawsuit highlights the need for comprehensive regulation, research, and alternatives to mitigate the potential harm caused by these chemicals.

Health Effects of Smoke and Chemical Exposure

In the short-term, exposure to smoke and chemicals can cause a variety of respiratory problems, such as coughing, shortness of breath, and wheezing. It can also lead to headaches, nausea, and vomiting. In some cases, exposure to smoke and chemicals can be fatal.

In the long term, exposure to smoke and chemicals can increase the risk of developing several chronic health conditions, including lung cancer, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

Firefighters are also at an increased risk of developing skin diseases, hearing loss, and musculoskeletal injuries.

The specific health effects that a firefighter experiences will depend on the type of fire, the length of exposure, and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). However, all firefighters are at some risk of developing health problems as a result of their exposure to smoke and chemicals.

Studies Highlighting the Long-Term Health of Firefighters

Numerous studies have investigated the long-term health outcomes of firefighters, revealing concerning trends. Research consistently indicates that firefighters face an elevated risk of developing specific health conditions directly related to their occupational hazards. 

For instance, studies have established a link between firefighting and an increased incidence of lung cancer, likely attributable to exposure to toxic substances in smoke and chemicals.

Moreover, firefighters have shown higher rates of heart disease compared to the general population. According to AHA Journals, the data presented at the 2021 American College of Cardiology annual meeting reveals that myocardial infarction is the primary cause of in-the-line-of-duty deaths among firefighters. Surprisingly, half of these firefighter fatalities result from myocardial infarctions. 

The study, which examined 642 reports on in-the-line-of-duty deaths from the National Fire Protection Agency and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, sheds light on this concerning trend.

The physically demanding nature of firefighting, coupled with exposure to smoke and stress, contribute to this heightened risk. These studies underscore the critical need for proactive measures to safeguard the health of firefighters.

Risk Factors for Firefighters’ Health Problems

The type of fire is a significant risk factor for firefighters’ health problems. For example, firefighters who fight structural fires are more likely to develop respiratory problems than firefighters who fight wildland fires. 

The length of exposure to smoke and chemicals is also a risk factor. Firefighters who are exposed to smoke and chemicals for longer periods are more likely to develop health problems.

The use of personal protective equipment (PPE) can help to reduce firefighters’ exposure to smoke and chemicals, but it is not always effective. Some PPE, such as air masks, can filter out harmful chemicals, but other PPE, such as turnout gear, can trap chemicals against the skin.

The Role of Government Agencies in Protecting Firefighters’ Health

Government agencies and fire departments play a vital role in safeguarding the health of firefighters. They have a responsibility to establish and enforce regulations and standards that prioritize the well-being of these frontline responders. 

This includes providing adequate training on occupational health hazards, implementing robust safety protocols, and ensuring access to high-quality personal protective equipment. 

Additionally, according to Bloomberg Law, training with AFFF has been banned in twenty-four states, or its use is otherwise restricted. Fire departments are now seeking essential information regarding the effectiveness and safety of alternative firefighting foams. The agency also seeks guidance on proper disposal methods for old foam and financial resources to cover disposal costs and purchase substitutes.

Collaborative efforts between government agencies, fire departments, and healthcare providers are crucial in promoting a culture of health and safety, ultimately protecting the physical and mental well-being of firefighters.


The long-term impact of smoke and chemical exposure on firefighters’ health is a significant concern that requires urgent attention. The hazards associated with firefighting, including the inhalation of toxic substances and exposure to hazardous chemicals, pose serious risks to these brave individuals.

By taking proactive measures and fostering a culture of safety and well-being, we can honor the sacrifices made by firefighters and ensure their long-term health is protected. Our collective responsibility is to support these heroes who selflessly put their lives on the line to keep our communities safe.

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