PFAS Buildup in Firefighter Gear Could be a Hazard for Firefighters
For decades, firefighters have worn bulky protective suits to shield themselves from the heat and flames common to fighting fires. However, reports now indicate these brave, essential workers could be at an increased risk of developing cancer due to dangerous chemicals found in their gear.
The New York Times indicates firefighters across the nation are raising complaints that their firefighting gear is unsafe to wear due to chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are manmade chemicals designed to resist heat, grease, oil, and water, making them ideal for firefighting gear.
PFAS have been added to a wide range of products, from fast-food containers to furniture. In fact, many of the Class B firefighting foams on the market contain PFAS.
PFAS earned the name “forever chemicals,” because studies found the chemicals do not break down in the environment or human body. Instead, they steadily build up over time.
Health officials have linked the buildup of PFAS in the body to a number of serious health conditions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say PFAS can increase individuals’ risk of cancer, decreased fertility, liver damage, and thyroid disease.
“There’s a need to drive PFAS out of everyday products, like food and cosmetics, textiles, carpets,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs for the Environmental Working Group. “Firefighters are disproportionately exposed, on top of all that.”
Firefighters are at a high risk of PFAS-caused injuries due to the regular exposure to PFAS in AFFF foam and, now, their firefighting gear. Firefighting gear manufacturers apply PFAS to firefighters’ protective clothing to keep the clothes water-resistant.
But, a study published last year indicated PFAS on firefighters’ protective clothing was a hazard to their health. According to researchers at the University of Notre Dame, PFAS can shed from the clothing and migrate into the coat’s inner layers, seeping into firefighters’ skin.
“Firefighting is a dangerous occupation, and we don’t want our firefighters to burn up. They need that protection,” said Linda Birnbaum, the former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences. “But we now know that PFAS is in their gear, and it doesn’t stay in their gear.”
Cancer has been the leading cause of death for firefighters in the U.S. over the last three decades. In 2019, cancer made up 75 percent of active-duty firefighter deaths. Experts indicate this trend could be linked to firefighters’ exposure to PFAS.
“We’re exposed to these chemicals every day,” said Captain Mitchell, a captain in the Nantucket Fire Department. “And the more I looked into it, the more it felt like the only people who were saying these chemicals were safe were the people who make it.”
In light of the cancer risks, Mitchel and other members of the International Association of Fire Fighters demand union officials respond by conducting independent tests of PFAS and for the union to get rid of sponsorships from equipment makers and chemical manufacturers linked to PFAS. Delegates representing the union will vote on the measure in the near future, speaking for over 300,000 firefighters that make up the union.
Firefighting Cancer Lawsuits
Hundreds of product liability lawsuits across the U.S. have already been filed by firefighters against AFFF manufacturers for failing to warn individuals about the cancer risks associated with PFAS in firefighting foam. These lawsuits have since been centralized in for pretrial proceedings in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina as part of a multidistrict litigation.
Now, firefighters are filing claims against manufacturers for knowingly making and selling firefighting equipment loaded with PFAS and failing to warn about the cancer risks. In October 2020, two dozen firefighters in California filed a lawsuit against 3M, E.I. du Pont de Nemours, Chemours, and other manufacturers for PFAS exposure in their firefighting gear.
“When I first got hired, the leading cause of death was a line-of-duty fire accident, then it was heart attacks,” said Lt. Ron Glass, president of the Orlando Professional Firefighters union. “Now it’s all cancers.”
Glass indicates while many of the initial PFAS cancer lawsuits were linked to AFFF or burning firefighting foam, increasing signs pointed to their firefighting suits as a source of PFAS contamination.
“The manufacturers initially told us there’s nothing wrong, there’s nothing harmful at all,” Glass said. “But it turns out there’s PFAS not only on the outer shell, but in the interior lining, which goes against our skin.”