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Thermal Regulation, Protective Apparel and Heat Stress – The Exogenous Factor

Whether it’s today’s chemical, biological agent scare or tomorrow’s first responder call, firefighters are among the chosen few who continually play Russian Roulette with their health each time they don their hazardous material suit or turnout gear and head into disaster. Each year governing committees amend standards to improve protective equipment. Yet, in spite of these good intentions, protective fabrics place an immeasurable health risk on the human body. As enigmatic as the term “heat stress” is, so is a “cure-all” solution.

Firefighters, EMTs and other first responders are well versed on the facts and remedies of the minor heat illness occurrences… heat rash, heat cramps, tetany (painful muscle spasms caused by faulty calcium metabolism or diminished parathyroid function), heat syncope (fainting) and heat exhaustion. But, it’s the obscure damage that one serious heat related incident as heat stroke can cause that is shrouded in obscurity. In a 1995 Occupational Medicine article, the Cancer Registry of Norway reported a correlation between the incidence of kidney cancer and both exposure and cumulative exposure to working in hot environments and volatiles some 20 to 35 years before observation. The main findings of this study revealed heat stress and kidney cancer in the group with at least three years of total employment. A quote from this study stated, “increased risk of kidney cancer has been reported from previous studies of workers in aluminum smelters and other hot environments such as foundries and coke ovens”.

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