Australian firefighters warned of cancer-causing chemical in protective clothing used for fighting wildfires

Published:  17 March, 2015

A study found protective clothing could contain formaldehyde if it had been treated with an additive called Proban – AFAC releases Safety Alert.

Australian firefighters have been advised to take precautions handling their uniforms after they were found to contain formaldehyde, a chemical linked to lymphatic cancer and brain tumours.

The Safety Alert by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council (AFAC) follows the publication of a study by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) which found ‘unexpected levels’ of the chemical in protective clothing.

AFAC commissioned CSIRO to conduct research to assess contaminants in the Proban-treated cotton PPC.

This research identified a potential concern of formaldehyde levels in some test results of Proban-treated product.

The research was conducted in a laboratory environment and the results indicated that further testing is required. Further testing will ensure the results take into account the operational environment and establish any potential exposure for firefighters.

Proban is a chemical additive and process that is applied to fabrics (such as cotton) to provide flame retardant capability. It is currently found in:

• CFA – technical rescue overalls and wildfire jackets/pants and overalls

• MFB – wildfire jackets and trousers

• DELWP – wildfire jackets and pants

• VICSES orange coveralls and two piece

Formaldehyde is naturally present in air, food and water, and a wide range of human domestic and industrial activities are responsible for both direct and indirect release of formaldehyde into the atmosphere. It dissipates quickly when left in a well-ventilated environment.

Safe Work Australia considers formaldehyde to be a probable human carcinogen when exposure is above the current occupational exposure standards. Further research is required to extrapolate these findings to an operational environment.

Until further investigations are completed AFAC recommends the following guidance be followed:

1. Agencies to advise members of the dangers of breathing in fumes that are emitted from Proban-treated PPC that has been stored in a confined space, e.g. a kit bag. Wherever possible, Proban-treated PPC should be stored in a well-ventilated environment but if this is not possible precautions should be taken to avoid breathing in the fumes (gases) emitted when opening the confined space.

2. Wherever Proban-treated PPC is stored in a sealed or confined space, ensure that it is opened in a well-ventilated area and allow a short time to pass before removing.

3. Agencies instruct personnel to wash separately Proban-treated cotton garments before they are worn for the first time and after each use.

4. Agencies advise members that direct skin contact with Proban-treated PPC may cause skin irritation. The known incidence of skin irritation time (over 30 years) that Proban-treated cotton has been used in Australia is minimal. Where there is evidence that skin irritation is occurring when a Proban-treated over-garment is being worn, individuals should wear long sleeve shirts and long pants underneath these garments.

5. Agencies instruct personnel not to shake Proban-treated garments as a means of removing dust and particulates before washing.

6. Agencies instruct personnel to wash separately Proban-treated cotton garments after each use so as to minimise the amount of dust and particulate matter trapped in uniforms.

AFAC says that further research and investigation on the impact of this safety advice issue will be undertaken by the agencies, and further information will be provided as soon as it becomes available through either AFAC or CSIRO.

  • Operation Florian

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