New research highlights inhalation exposure in wildland firefighters

October 27, 2023

Understanding the hazards of wildland firefighting is crucial for the health and safety of these heroes.

In a recent study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), researchers have unveiled insights about the inhalation exposures faced by wildland firefighters.

This research, which is part of the 2-year Wildland Firefighter Exposure and Health Effects study, was undertaken in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The study was based on observations made during a 3-day wildfire incident involving a single crew.

The significance of inhalation exposure

For wildland firefighters, the dangers associated with smoke and other inhalation hazards are severe.

Such exposures have been linked with health complications including decreased lung functionality, heightened inflammation, and potential risks of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Key findings from the research

The study emphasized the urgent need for interventions to minimize inhalation exposures for wildland firefighters.

Although the sample size was limited, the study provided valuable insights.

This is due to the repeated measurements recorded as firefighters engaged in diverse tasks, like fire-line preparation, fuel break development, and mop-up operations.

These samples shed light on specific activities that intensified firefighters’ exposure risks.

About the Wildland Firefighter Exposure and Health Effects study

Initiated in spring 2018, the Wildland Firefighter Exposure and Health Effects (WFFEHE) study, a partnership between NIOSH, the United States Forest Service (USFS), and the United States Department of the Interior (DOI), intended to monitor a group of federally-employed wildland firefighters over three fire seasons.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic restricted the observation to two seasons.

The primary goal was to deepen understanding about the chemical and physical hazards of wildland firefighting and its impact on firefighters’ health, particularly after successive fire seasons.

The study’s focus areas included the effects on firefighters’ lungs, heart, kidneys, and hearing.

A deeper look into the study process

The study revolved around volunteer participants from wildland fire crews of the USFS and the DOI, National Park Service.

Over the 2018 and 2019 fire seasons, more than 150 wildland firefighters from six crews willingly participated.

These participants were engaged during pre-season and post-season periods, with evaluations near the start (April/May) and end (September/October) of each fire season.

The evaluations included a series of tests and questionnaires about their work history, health behaviors, and overall health.

Next steps for the research

NIOSH and its partners are in the phase of analyzing the data and will soon be releasing their findings and recommendations.

For more detailed insights on this study, interested parties can visit the NIOSH webpage, which will be continually updated with new findings.

Additionally, for more context on this topic, one can read further at USFA FEMA.

FSJA Comment

Prioritizing the health and safety of our wildland firefighters is paramount.

This new research sheds light on the real risks these firefighters face, emphasizing the need for actionable solutions.

By understanding the dangers more clearly, we can develop better protective measures, ensuring the well-being of those who risk their lives to protect our communities and natural landscapes.

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