Airborne contaminants during controlled residential fires

J Occup Environ Hyg. 2018 May;15(5):399-412. doi: 10.1080/15459624.2018.1445260.


In this study, we characterize the area and personal air concentrations of combustion byproducts produced during controlled residential fires with furnishings common in 21st century single family structures. Area air measurements were collected from the structure during active fire and overhaul (post suppression) and on the fireground where personnel were operating without any respiratory protection. Personal air measurements were collected from firefighters assigned to fire attack, victim search, overhaul, outside ventilation, and command/pump operator positions. Two different fire attack tactics were conducted for the fires (6 interior and 6 transitional) and exposures were compared between the tactics. For each of the 12 fires, firefighters were paired up to conduct each job assignment, except for overhaul that was conducted by 4 firefighters. Sampled compounds included polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs, e.g., benzene), hydrogen cyanide (HCN), and particulate (area air sampling only). Median personal air concentrations for the attack and search firefighters were generally well above applicable short-term occupational exposure limits, with the exception of HCN measured from search firefighters. Area air concentrations of all measured compounds decreased after suppression. Personal air concentrations of total PAHs and benzene measured from some overhaul firefighters exceeded exposure limits. Median personal air concentrations of HCN (16,300 ppb) exceeded the exposure limit for outside vent firefighters, with maximum levels (72,900 ppb) higher than the immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) level. Median air concentrations on the fireground (including particle count) were above background levels and highest when collected downwind of the structure and when ground-level smoke was the heaviest. No statistically significant differences in personal air concentrations were found between the 2 attack tactics. The results underscore the importance of wearing self-contained breathing apparatus when conducting overhaul or outside ventilation activities. Firefighters should also try to establish command upwind of the structure fire, and if this cannot be done, respiratory protection should be considered.

Keywords: Firefighters; HCN; PAHs; VOCs; overhaul; particulate.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants, Occupational / analysis*
  • Firefighters*
  • Fires*
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen Cyanide / analysis
  • Occupational Exposure / analysis*
  • Particulate Matter / analysis
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons / analysis
  • Smoke
  • Volatile Organic Compounds / analysis


  • Air Pollutants, Occupational
  • Particulate Matter
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons
  • Smoke
  • Volatile Organic Compounds
  • Hydrogen Cyanide