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Hillsborough firefighters may be wearing a health hazard

When Jack McCartt joined Boca Raton Fire Rescue in 1982, he knew he was putting his life on the line.

But he never considered that it might be by wearing a pair of department-issued pants.

Now, three Florida fire departments, including Hillsborough County, have notified employees about safety concerns surrounding a line of fire-resistant uniform trousers called FireWear.

Responding to health worries that originated in Boca Raton, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is conducting a health hazard evaluation to see if there is any link between firefighters' complaints and exposure to antimony, a fire-retardant woven into the FireWear pants.

"If you would have asked me what's the most dangerous thing you do every day, I wouldn't say putting on a pair of pants," said McCartt, now chief of Dania Beach Fire Rescue.

Hillsborough County firefighters began wearing the FireWear pants six months ago, said Assistant Chief Ron Rogers. There haven't been any complaints.

Still, on Friday, Rogers sent an e-mail to all employees answering questions about antimony and offering to exchange their FireWear pants for slacks made of 100 percent cotton.

Firefighters who decide to keep the FireWear pants can volunteer to be a part of the federal evaluation, which will involve a urinalysis to measure levels of antimony exposure.

The cotton-blend pants, which are manufactured by Feichheimer in Cincinnati, include a fiber form of antimony, which is also used as a fire retardant in rubber, plastics and adhesives.

Dr. Cynthia Lewis-Younger of the Florida Poison Information Center in Tampa said everyone is exposed to low levels of antimony, and it is found naturally in most people. Short-term exposure by inhalation can cause eye irritation or rashes, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But Lewis-Younger said there is no known health risk that comes from skin contact.

In Boca Raton, where firefighters have been wearing the pants since 1994, union officials complained that the pants have poisoned workers, creating a range of symptoms that include muscle fatigue and severe headaches.

McCartt, who has taught and designed a course on hazardous materials for the National Fire Protection Association, said one firefighter sought his help after years of questions over his failing health. Finally, hair sample testing revealed elevated levels of antimony, McCartt said.

Fred Blosser, a spokesman for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, said the study will rely on urine testing because hair samples are not considered the most reliable method for scientific testing.

According to the study's principal investigator, Blosser said, it is "unlikely there would be high enough levels of exposure to antimony from the pants."

The agency has neither heard any similar complaints nor seen anything like what Boca Raton is complaining of in scientific literature, he said. "But I would also say we'll be looking at the total range of information available, and the findings and recommendations will be based on a careful analysis of all the information."

Chief Jeff Moral of Tamarac Fire Rescue, which has been issuing the pants for five years, said the department hasn't heard any complaints about the pants either, but has offered to swap them out for those who choose. The health concerns are ironic, he said, considering why departments bought them:

"They're supposed to be the safest pants out there."

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Hillsborough firefighters may be wearing a health hazard 01/16/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 17, 2009 12:05am]
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