Firefighter Hood Contamination: Efficiency of Laundering to Remove PAHs and FRs

Alexander Charles Mayer, College of William and Mary
Kenneth W. Fent
Stephen Bertke, Division of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations, and Field Studies, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
Gavin P. Horn
Denise L. Smith
Steve Kerber
M. J. La Guardia, Virginia Institute of Marine Science


Firefighters are occupationally exposed to products of combustion containing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and flame retardants (FRs), potentially contributing to their increased risk for certain cancers. Personal protective equipment (PPE), including firefighter hoods, helps to reduce firefighters’ exposure to toxic substances during fire responses by providing a layer of material on which contaminants deposit prior to reaching the firefighters skin. However, over time hoods that retain some contamination may actually contribute to firefighters’ systemic dose. We investigated the effectiveness of laundering to reduce or remove contamination on the hoods, specifically PAHs and three classes of FRs: polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), non-PBDE flame retardants (NPBFRs), and organophosphate flame retardants (OPFRs). Participants in the study were grouped into crews of 12 firefighters who worked in pairs by job assignment while responding to controlled fires in a single-family residential structure. For each pair of firefighters, one hood was laundered after every scenario and one was not. Bulk samples of the routinely laundered and unlaundered hoods from five pairs of firefighters were collected and analyzed. Residual levels of OPFRs, NPBFRs, and PAHs were lower in the routinely laundered hoods, with total levels of each class of chemicals being 56–81% lower, on average, than the unlaundered hoods. PBDEs, on average, were 43% higher in the laundered hoods, most likely from cross contamination. After this initial testing, four of the five unlaundered exposed hoods were subsequently laundered with other heavily exposed (unlaundered) and unexposed (new) hoods. Post-laundering evaluation of these hoods revealed increased levels of PBDEs, NPBFRs, and OPFRs in both previously exposed and unexposed hoods, indicating cross contamination. For PAHs, there was little evidence of cross contamination and the exposed hoods were significantly less contaminated after laundering (76% reduction; p = 0.011). Further research is needed to understand how residual contamination on hoods could contribute to firefighters’ systemic exposures.