First responders to Chemtool fire fear long-lasting effects of chemical exposure

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ROCKTON, Ill. (WTVO) — For many, the Chemtool factory fire has sparked health concerns, and some front line firefighters on the scene fear their exposure to chemicals inside the flaming structure could have long-lasting side effects.

More than 80 regional fire departments responded to the factory, at 1165 Prairie Hill Road, on Monday.

Boone County Fire District 2 Chief Brian Kunce was one of the firefighters called to the scene.

“Mixing all those things together can actually be very dangerous, or even deadly,” Kunce said. “At Chemtool, you’re going to know that there’s going to be some sort of chemicals or liquids in there, especially with that amount of smoke and fire that was coming out of that. It’s not just Class A combustibles, you’re dealing with something.”

Kunce says every fire they respond to could potentially contain toxic chemicals, especially those produced by synthetics.

“Everything that’s in that, your carpet, your chairs, all that stuff…it’s bad when it catches fire,” he said.

Safety researcher Richard Kesler, with the Illinois Fire Service Institute, says normal household chemicals carry a danger when burned.

“One of the leading causes of firefighter line-of-duty deaths is cancer from chemical exposures at incidents,” Kesler said.

Kesler says, because smoke and toxins can get around a firefighter’s protective gear, skin cancer is extremely common, along with lung cancer.

“Lung cancer takes a very, very long time to develop within the body, so they’re just now starting to see some of the lung cancer develop from the firefighters who were working on the pile and 9/11,” Kesler said.

The risk is why both men say a firefighter’s gear needs to be properly cleaned.

“We can remove 85% of those surface PAH’s (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and potentially reduce firefighters’ exposure to them,” Kesler said.

“You want to get that smoke and fuel out of your gear, so we’re ready for the next one,” Kunce said.

The Illinois Fire Service Institute is giving out gear cleaning kits to fire departments to help reduce their exposure to toxic chemicals.

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