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How changing your decon practice could save your life

A chemical detoxifier removes more harmful particulates than just soap, water and scrubbing, according to a recent study


Sponsored by Decon7 Systems

By Rachel Zoch for FireRescue1 BrandFocus

As awareness grows of firefighters’ occupational cancer risk, so does scrutiny of decontamination practices both on and off the fireground. Scrubbing soiled PPE with soap and water before laundering has long been the commonly accepted best practice – but is this really the best way to eliminate the harmful particulates that threaten firefighters’ health?

New research shows that soap alone isn’t enough when it comes to gross decon. Using a combination detergent plus chemical detoxifier formula like D7 has been shown to remove more toxins than soap alone. (image/Getty)
New research shows that soap alone isn’t enough when it comes to gross decon. Using a combination detergent plus chemical detoxifier formula like D7 has been shown to remove more toxins than soap alone. (image/Getty)

It turns out that turnout gear fabric is at its weakest when wet. Traditional gross decon methods rely on soap, water and scrubbing, which can damage PPE fabric and actually allow contaminants to be more readily absorbed – the very opposite of what needs to happen. The same goes for laundering in a washing machine, where the gear is submerged and agitated.

Detergent vs. a broad spectrum decontamination solution 

Using a chemical decontaminant designed for the task eliminates the need for scrubbing so that toxins are removed without the mechanical or physical effort that can grind particulates into the fabric.

Results of a study conducted by researchers at Baylor University in 2019 compared the effects of using standard laundry detergent to the effects of using a chemical decontaminant to clean soiled firefighting PPE. The researchers analyzed the efficiency of D7, produced by Decon7 Systems, in removing 20 specific chemical contaminants, including PAHs and pesticides. They also measured textile performance before and after decontamination.

Further research is underway, but here are a few key findings:

  • Standard detergents may not be an effective cleaning agent for firefighting PPE, as harmful particulates remained present even after repeated launderings.
  • Laundering seems to negatively impact the protective performance of the outer shell when it comes to water and abrasion resistance.
  • Turnout gear laundered with D7 fared better with water and abrasion resistance compared to gear laundered with regular detergent.
  • PPE laundered with D7 showed the largest reduction in chemical contaminants of the detergents tested.  

How to use D7 for fireground decontamination 

Reducing contamination is the goal, and the researchers concluded that using D7 is likely to remove more toxic particulates for a greater reduction in overall health risk to the firefighter. The patented formula can break down and neutralize carcinogens like formaldehyde and soot, two of the most common fireground particulates.

D7 is a detergent as well as a chemical detoxifier, and the formula meets the current NFPA 1851 standard. The bulk D7 solution comes divided into three parts: the detergent, the neutralizing agent and an accelerator. Once mixed, these can be applied with a foaming apparatus, low-pressure sprayer, mop or soaking system. Foaming turnout gear on the fireground is a good way to begin removing carcinogens.

Once applied, D7 begins to break down whatever contaminants are present. The surfactants in the solution make toxic chemicals soluble so that the particles can be attacked and neutralized by the activated hydrogen peroxide.

“You’re getting all that stuff off before it gets a chance to absorb into your turnout gear and then absorb into your skin,” said Joe Hill, senior vice president for safety, security and defense for Decon7.

He suggests a two-step decontamination process, beginning on scene:

Step 1: Start with gross decon on the fireground, not with the traditional soap and water but using a chemical detoxifier like D7 that also has detergent and disinfecting properties.

Firefighters can apply D7 and return to the fire without rinsing and without additional risk, says Hill, because D7 is a non-flammable, water-based solution. He recommends that decon teams foam or spray D7 on the gear of every firefighter each time he or she exits the hot zone, then apply once more and bag PPE during the final exit from the hot zone.

This process should include tools as well as PPE, he adds. D7 was developed to provide an effective decontaminant solution with low toxicity and low corrosive action that is safe for use on equipment. Apply D7, let the equipment sit for a few minutes after application, and then rinse with a water hose.

Step 2: To complete the job, use the same type of decontaminant to launder the bagged turnout gear and uniforms back at the station. D7 is also appropriate for use as a laundry detergent.

Regular detergents aren’t enough to eliminate any remaining surface toxins and those that may have been absorbed into the fabric, says Hill, and citrus-based detergents could potentially bind carcinogens to turnout gear fabrics.

“D7 is colorfast and safe for use on a variety of materials, and it has been tested and certified safe for use on PPE by NFPA standards, including fabrics, tape and liners,” he said.

Fading is not just a cosmetic issue – discoloration of the fabric can be an indication that protective qualities have been compromised, according to at least one PPE manufacturer’s label.

Changing the decon paradigm 

Different studies show different rates of cancer risk in the fire service, but we do know that firefighters face exposure to a host of toxic chemicals on the fireground. The question now is: What’s the best way to reduce exposure to those toxins to reduce firefighters’ health risks?

Until recently, buckets of soapy water and scrub brushes were the accepted best practice. Given the new research that suggests water can make turnout gear more permeable, as well as the availability of new chemical decontaminants, is it time to reconsider your department’s decon procedures? Treating PPE with a solution like D7 not only means reduced time and effort on gross decon – it can also mean more effective elimination of harmful particulates.

“Most people ask how clean is clean,” said Hill. “What we are trying to determine is how clean is safe. Is the 85% reduction safe, or is more needed to get below IDLH and exposure limit levels?”

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