Resolution to Reduce Smoke Inhalation Deaths

FIRE SMOKE COALITION APPLAUDS CONGRESSIONAL FIRE SERVICES INSTITUTE

RESOLUTION ON REDUCING SMOKE INHALATION DEATHS

 Cites Hydrogen Cyanide As Most Deadly Toxicant in Fire Smoke

INDIANAPOLIS (May 18, 2011) – The Fire Smoke Coalition today 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.

“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.[i]

 In fire smoke, hydrogen cyanide can be up to 35 times more toxic than carbon monoxide,[ii] an underappreciated risk that can cause severe injury or death within minutes.[iii],[iv]  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.[v]   

“By approving a resolution on smoke inhalation, our National Advisory Committee recognizes that CFSI should become actively engaged in efforts to increase national awareness on the dangers of smoke inhalation and on initiatives to reduce its risks to both the public and the fire service,” said Bill Webb, executive director of the CFSI.  “I commend (Coalition board member, CFSI member and editor of Fire Engineering) Bobby Halton for bringing this resolution forward to the NAC and for providing strong leadership on such an important issue.”

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 today’s fire smoke.”


[i] United States Fire Administration; Fire Loss in the United States in 2009; Michael J. Karter.

[ii] Tuovinen H, Blomqvist P. Modeling of hydrogen cyanide formation in room fires. Brandforsk project 321-011. SP Report 2003:10. Böras, Sweden: SP Swedish National Testing and Research Institute; 2003.

[iii] Guidotti T. Acute cyanide poisoning in prehospital care: new challenges, new tools for intervention. Prehosp Disaster Med. 2006;21(2):S40-S48.

[iv] Eckstein M, Maniscalco PM. Focus on smoke inhalation – the most common cause of acute cyanide poisoning.  Prehosp  Disaster Med. 2006;21(2):S49-S55.

[v] Alarie Y. Toxicity of fire smoke. Crit Rev Toxicol. 2002;32(4):259-289.

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