While cancer is a prominent killer among firefighters, likely due to hazardous exposures in fires, there’s growing concern that their protective gear might be a contributing factor
Firefighters, when responding to a call, are subjected to a multitude of potential risks such as intense heat, unstable structures, and choking smoke. However, cancer, suspected to be caused by exposure to toxic substances during firefighting, remains a leading cause of fatalities in this profession.
There’s a rising concern among firefighters across the nation that their sickness might be linked to an unexpected source – their protective turnout gear. Studies have discovered that this gear has contained PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) for years, which are linked to kidney and testicular cancer, liver damage, reduced fertility and immunity, and heightened risk of asthma and thyroid disease.
The Inquirer spoke with firefighters, locally and nationwide, who are currently fighting cancer, and delved into how certain cities and states are attempting to safeguard firefighters from exposure to PFAS.
How common is cancer in firefighters?
According to the International Association of Fire Fighters, a union representing 334,000 members in the U.S. and Canada, it added the names of 261 active-duty firefighters to its memorial wall the previous year. Close to two-thirds of these firefighters succumbed to cancer.
Recent research published in the Journal of Occupational Medicine revealed that Scottish firefighters’ cancer death rates are 1.6 times higher than those of the general population. Prostate cancer and leukemia rates appear to be over triple the average rate.
PFAS, also known as ‘forever chemicals,’ can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin, and linger in the body for years. Internal documents from chemical companies demonstrate that manufacturers have known for many years that some PFAS are “highly toxic” when inhaled.
How did we discover PFAS in firefighting gear?
Graham Peaslee, a physicist from the University of Notre Dame, who has spent several years researching PFAS compounds, began testing 43 pieces of turnout gear in 2018.
Peaslee discovered what he described as the highest levels of PFAS he had ever seen in any textile. Particularly alarming to him was the transference of PFAS from the firefighter gear onto his students’ hands. “We saw a measurable transfer just from rubbing it onto our hands,” he remembered. “A significant quantity. This was startling.”
He also conducted tests on dust from 15 firehouses and observed that areas with the highest PFAS levels were those where the firefighters resided and stored their turnout gear.
Why would companies use cancer-associated chemicals to produce firefighters’ protective gear?
PFAS, a water repellent, has been used in the manufacturing of turnout gear for over two decades. In 2007, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), an international fire codes organization, introduced a standard for the moisture barrier in turnout gear, requiring it to resist ultraviolet light for 40 hours without deteriorating.
This decision was partially based on a master’s thesis from a University of Kentucky student in 2000, whose advisor had received at least $50,000 in funding from PFAS manufacturers and firefighting gear companies that use these chemicals.
The NFPA asserts that it does not prescribe the use of any specific material or chemical in gear, leaving it to manufacturers’ discretion.
However, until April, textiles treated with PFAS were the only materials that could pass the ultraviolet test.
Is this standard being contested?
Indeed. The firefighters’ union filed a lawsuit against the NFPA in March, accusing the international organization of overlooking scientific data and minimizing the health risks posed by these chemicals when it implemented the standard.
Union leaders demand manufacturers produce PFAS-free turnout gear and firefighting foam and call for the NFPA to abolish its “arbitrary and unreasonable” standard.
The NFPA has labelled the lawsuit as “misguided and ill-informed.”
Are non-firefighters exposed to PFAS?
PFAS are present in an array of common items, from nonstick cookware and stain-resistant carpets to waterproof clothing and synthetic turf.
In March, the EPA proposed enforceable limits on six widely-used PFAS that have polluted water systems across the U.S. and are considered unsafe to consume at nearly any level. 3M, a chemical company, recently agreed to pay up to $12.5 billion to settle lawsuits filed by Philadelphia and other municipalities, claiming that public drinking water has been contaminated by PFAS.
How are Philadelphia officials responding to firefighters’ PFAS concerns?
According to Sarah Peterson, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney, the city is striving to reduce cancer risks through personal protective equipment, educational programs, and physical examinations, and is transitioning away from PFAS-containing firefighting foam, a product now outlawed for training in at least 12 states.
Peterson stated that the Fire Department hasn’t discovered any low-PFAS gear that offers firefighters “with the same level of protection they get from their current gear.”
What are other cities and states doing about this?
Officials in Nantucket, MA, have invested $161,668 in turnout gear with reduced PFAS amounts and relocated their firefighters to a new headquarters.
Rhode Island’s House Finance Committee is reviewing a proposal to allocate $15.2 million for PFAS-free firefighting gear.
While manufacturers in Washington state can still sell firefighting gear containing PFAS, they must disclose its presence to buyers. Indiana legislators are promoting a bill that would require 1,000 active and retired firefighters to undergo bio-monitoring to determine their PFAS exposure.
Do any manufacturers offer PFAS-free gear?
In April, Stedfast, a Canada-based manufacturer, announced the development of a PFAS-free moisture barrier for turnout gear. It’s yet unclear when fire departments would be able to purchase this product.
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