Firefighters are disproportionately struck by cancer compared to the general population. A growing body of evidence points towards the PFAS – also known as “forever chemicals”, since they don’t degrade – in firefighting turnout gear, applied to make the clothing water-repellant.
They are the men and women who put their lives on the line to save other’s every day. But being a firefighter entails an invisible occupational hazard that can be just as deadly as running into a burning building, caused by the very equipment meant to protect them from the roaring fire.
According to two large studies conducted in the US, firefighters are 9% more likely to be diagnosed with cancer, and 14% more likely to die from the disease, compared to the general population.
“Now it’s all cancers”
Or as Lieutenant Ron Glass, president of the Orlando Professional Firefighters union, who has been a firefighter for 25 years and lost two of his colleagues to cancer in the past year, put it in an article in The New York Times:
“When I first got hired, the leading cause of death was a line-of-duty fire accident, then it was heart attacks. Now it’s all cancers.”
There is no lack of occupational hazards in the firefighting profession. Initially, the blame for the high cancer rates was put on toxic fumes from the materials burning and the presence of harmful PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in firefighting foam.
Could the answer be hidden in the clothes?
But the rates in which firefighters get testicular cancer, mesothelioma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – the three most common cancer forms for firefighters – have not declined, even though now use sophisticated smoke masks and air packs to protect themselves from toxic fumes.
“Then we started looking at our bunker gear [also known as turnout gear, editor’s note]. The manufacturers initially told us there’s nothing wrong, there’s nothing harmful at all. But it turns out there’s PFAS not only on the outer shell, but in the interior lining, which goes against our skin”, Ron Glass says in The New York Times article.
“It turns out there’s PFAS not only on the outer shell, but in the interior lining, which goes against our skin”
Dr. Graham F. Peaslee, a professor in experimental nuclear physics, chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame, led a study that was published last year, which found significant quantities of PFAS chemicals in firefighters’ turnout gear, applied to make the clothes water-repellant, so they don’t get soaked and heavy to work in.
The firefighter’s wife became suspicious
Dr. Peaslee began the study in 2017, when he was contacted by Diane Cotter, whose husband – a veteran firefighter – had been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. Paul Cotter was healthy and took care of himself, so Diane Cotter suspected that something other than smoke had caused the cancer.
“The most highly flourinated textiles I’ve ever seen”
She had a hunch and examined his turnout gear. While it appeared intact on the outside, she discovered fabric decay on the inside, which made her wonder if the gear was leaking toxic chemicals.
More than 30 used and unused sets of turnout gear were examined by Dr. Peaslee and his team. They found that the shell of the garments averaged just over 2% fluorine (PFAS) by weight, while the moisture barrier, located between the shell and the fabric closest to the skin, contained more than 30% fluorine by weight on average.
Dr. Peaslee describes turnout gear as “the most highly fluorinated textiles I’ve ever seen”.
Chronic exposure to PFAS
Over time, the PFAS chemicals applied as a surface treatment appear to migrate from the shell fabric of the turnout gear, through the moisture barrier and on to the thermal layer, where the chemicals can come in contact with the skin. Since the chemicals shed with wear and tear, they can also be inhaled and ingested.
“And firefighters aren’t told about this. So they’re wearing it, they’re lounging in it when they’re between calls. That’s chronic exposure, and that’s not good”, Dr. Peaslee says in The New York Times article.
Dr. Peaslee’s study was the first to identify this potential source of PFAS exposure in firefighting turnout gear. In January, he and a team of scientists followed up with a study investigating dust collected from 15 fire stations.
“Firefighters aren’t told about this. So they’re wearing it, they’re lounging in it when they’re between calls. That’s chronic exposure, and that’s not good”
The team found 24 different PFAS chemicals in the dust samples – the ones with the highest concentrations collected from the turnout gear locker areas, further strengthening the conviction that turnout gear is a significant source of harmful PFAS among firefighters.
They are many, toxic – and forever
PFAS, or “forever chemicals”, are a group of around 4,700 man-made chemicals of similar structure and properties. They are persistant, resistant to water, grease, dirt and heat, and common components of non-stick frying pans, child car seats and fast-food containers, as well as firefighting foam and turnout gear.
PFAS chemicals can also be toxic and bioaccumulative, and are linked to a number of diseases, including liver damage, decreased fertility, asthma, thyroid disease and various forms of cancer. Since they have been widely used in production since the 1950’s, PFAS can be found in the bloodstream of 97% of the world’s population.
Despite their similar structure and properties, only a few PFAS chemicals have been banned or restricted from use, for example PFOA and PFOS. This often leads to “regrettable substitution”, where one restricted PFAS is simply switched to an often equally bad – or worse – unregulated “cousin”.
“While some forms of PFAS are being phased out, the replacements have not been proven to be safer”, says Dr. Peaslee.
“Firefighters risk their lives for us. The least we can do is give them the safest gear possible”
“This is a really persistent class of chemicals. It gets in the bloodstream; it stays there and can accumulate in the body. There are diseases that correlate with its presence, so we really don’t want this class of chemicals out there. Firefighters risk their lives for us. The least we can do is give them the safest gear possible.”
At ChemSec, we could not agree more. That is why we started the PFAS Movement – for and by companies who are committed to ridding the world of “forever chemicals” for good, as well as urge legislators to ban all PFAS as a group.
Read more, join the PFAS Movement, and help us protect firefighters as well as the general population from these harmful substances.