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A New Look at the Dangers of Smoke Inhalation

On May 19, the Fire Smoke Coalition sent out a press release saying that it “applauds the Congressional Fire Services Institute’s (CFSI) National Advisory Council (NAC) passage of A Resolution to Address a New Epidemic: Smoke Inhalation at its April board meeting.” CFSI is a leading non-partisan policy institute designed to educate members of Congress on the needs of our nation’s fire and emergency services.

In its resolution, CFSI notes that there is mounting proof, obtained through atmospheric monitoring on fire grounds throughout the U.S., that hydrogen cyanide (HCN) is a predominant toxicant found in fire smoke. The resolution calls for educating the fire service about the dangers of smoke inhalation–including those of HCN–through support of a national education program, the development of HCN poisoning treatment protocols for all local and state emergency medical services (EMS), and efforts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to establish a national database of smoke inhalation injuries, medical complications and deaths linked to HCN.

To learn even more about the Fire Smoke Coalition and about HCN poisoning, click on this link.

“It’s encouraging to see that both fire smoke and hydrogen cyanide poisoning are being recognized by CFSI for the serious and prevalent illnesses they are,” said Rob Schnepp, assistant chief of Special Operations for the Alameda County (CA) Fire Department. “As we learn more about the dangers of fire smoke, and pass that information along to firefighters and civilians around the world, we are confident we can reduce the number of people injured and killed by smoke.”

In the United States, residential fires are the third leading cause of fatal injury and the fifth most common cause of unintentional injury death, yet the majority of fire-related fatalities are not caused by burns, but by smoke inhalation. Despite the amount of fires in the U.S. decreasing each year, the amount of civilians dying in fires is actually increasing. For example, in 2009, 1,348,500 fires were attended by public fire departments, a decrease of 7.1 percent from the year before; however, 3,010 civilian fire deaths occurred, which is an increase of 9.3 percent.

In fire smoke, hydrogen cyanide can be up to 35 times more toxic than carbon monoxide, an underappreciated risk that can cause severe injury or death within minutes. In a review of major fires over a 19-year period, cyanide was found at toxic-to-lethal levels in the blood of approximately 33 percent to 87 percent of fatalities.

The Fire Smoke Coalition will begin working with various government agencies and medical associations in an effort to reduce the number of smoke inhalation deaths by elevating awareness surrounding hydrogen cyanide as the most deadly toxicant in fire smoke, which is treatable if detected.

“As a country, if we can accept that 30,654 human beings died during a 10-year period, we’ve become complacent about the illness,” said Shawn Longerich, executive director of the Coalition. “That’s unacceptable. This resolution raises the bar for all of us to do more and we can by embracing new medical treatment protocols that include consideration for hydrogen cyanide poisoning in fire smoke.”