Burning Buildings Aren’t the Only Things Hurting Our Brave Firefighters


Picture of firefighter

When people think about the dangers that firefighters face, they naturally consider things like smoke inhalation, burns, and harm from collapsing buildings.

There are other, more hidden dangers to firefighters that can lead to long and short-term hearing loss. Ongoing research can help us figure out changes to equipment and their environments to help prevent this problem.

Chemical Exposure

Exposure to several types of chemicals, such as heavy metals including lead and cadmium, can lead to hearing loss. This exposure can occur through the skin or by breathing, putting people fighting fires at risk when they’re in buildings containing these chemicals. Once these chemicals make it into the bloodstream, they travel to and get absorbed in the hearing nerve. This, in turn, can lead to hearing loss due to nerve damage. Exposure can also affect the small hairs, or cilia, in the inner ear. These hairs help sound travel through the ear, and they do not regenerate once they are dead. Once enough of these hairs are gone, the result is often long-term hearing loss. Urban firefighters are at particular risk for chemical exposure, in part due to the sheer number of fires they fight in buildings that are older and contain these dangerous chemicals.

Noise Exposure

Scientists have long recognized that short and long-term exposure to loud noises can lead to hearing loss. Prolonged exposure to sounds at 85 decibels or higher can lead to hearing problems, and shorter bursts at higher levels can lead to similar damage. These noises damage the inner ear structure, and they affect people of all ages. Firefighters are exposed to loud sirens, ventilation tools, saws, alarms, and other equipment that have operating sounds at dangerous levels, in some cases over 100 decibels. In cities, firefighters rarely have much room to move around to get themselves away from blaring sirens and alarms, and also have to put up with the normal loud noises of a busy urban setting.

The Combination of Factors

Exposure to both loud noise and chemicals can have a cumulative effect on the hearing of firefighters. This is true even if both exposures at are recommended levels, to the extent that the combination can cause more damage than excessive levels of just chemicals or noise. Because they have a negative effect on hearing in different ways, the combination of the two makes a bad problem worse. Many firefighters also work long shifts, such as 24 hours on and 48 hours off, meaning that they get prolonged exposure to these dangers.

Ongoing Research

Past research has made clear the links between noise, chemical exposure, and hearing loss. Scientists are continuing that work in the hopes of protecting firefighters against these dangers better. For example, researchers at Wayne State University are studying the hazards of lead and cadmium to firefighters in Detroit. Cadmium was used to protect metal in the auto industry, and many of the old building in the city contain lead paint. Studying this group of high-risk firefighters will hopefully give us additional insight into how to protect those who protect us.

Want more information?

Checkout these related articles

Glass of dark beer which may help with hearing loss.
Helping Me Hear
| June 3, 2020

What Does a Pint of Guinness Have to Do With Your Hearing?

What does the research say about alcohol, Guinness, and hearing loss? Find out. […]

Read More…

Man with hands over ears suffering from ear wax.
Helping Me Hear
| May 29, 2020

Excessive Ear Wax: Common Culprits

Does it feel like your ears are producing too much earwax? Find out the causes of excessive ear wax and how to safely remove it. […]

Read More…

Man with his finger sticking in his ear
Helping Me Hear
| May 29, 2020

How Do You Clear a Clogged Ear?

Clogged ears are the worst, right? Here are the safest tips for unclogging your ear (and the two things you should never do). […]

Read More…

Find A Hearing Expert Near You Today

Discover everything you need to know about hearing loss and hearing aids and find top local hearing experts.

Find An Expert