You’ve probably heard of PFAS chemicals before. They’re the group of synthetic polymers, including PFOS and PFOA, implicated in some human health conditions because the chemicals are in the water, the soils, our food, and in some cases, our work clothes.
That’s likely the case for firefighters who rely on the same now-ubiquitous class of chemicals – used in nonstick cookware, food containers and a host of other products – to make their protective gear. Few people suggested a direct link between the PFAS chemicals and firefighting, though, until the wife of a firefighter diagnosed with cancer reached out to a University of Notre Dame researcher to get answers.
With 28 years on the job at a Boston-area fire department, Paul Cotter was just 55 when he received a prostate cancer diagnosis – and he was fortunate enough to beat the odds. But when Cotter got sick, his wife Diane began to ask questions about what her otherwise healthy and active husband was exposed to on the job. Her research led her to the PFOA used in the manufacture of fire turnout gear.
There’s no question that the gear has saved countless lives in a dangerous career, but Diane wasn’t getting answers when she asked companies to provide data about the chemicals in the layers of coats and pants. So she emailed Graham Peaslee, a professor of experimental nuclear physics at the Midwestern school in the United States. Peaslee is studying the PFAS materials and exposures.
“This is a really persistent class of chemicals,” Peaslee explains. “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.” Among the illnesses linked to PFAS compounds are high blood pressure, compromised immune systems, and kidney and prostate cancers.
He agreed to run samples on turnout gear sent from across the U.S., looking in the lab to see how PFAS exposure might be at work in the same way it’s present in fast-food wrappers and raincoats.
“The results were phenomenal — off the scale in parts per million of fluorine in all but one of the samples,” Peaslee said of a group of never-used fabric swatches. “Everything was just loaded with fluorine.” That’s led to another round of research to better understand what happens with gear used over time.
The International Association of Fire Fighters notes that the PFOA compound is being phased out in the U.S. and Canada, particularly with firefighting foams used by both military and civilian departments. The European Union and other nations agreed, with exceptions, to a global PFOA ban in May under the Stockholm Convention of the United Nations Environment Program. That still leaves questions on gear, which are under investigation by Peaslee as well as an IAFF-funded study at University of Oregon.
Peaslee hopes to reveal answers to those questions, and now both firefighters and their U.S. legislators are looking into how they can better protect industry professionals from toxic PFAS exposures. Most recently, the members of Delaware’s congressional delegation are asking the U.S. Department of Defense for a clearer understanding of how PFAS foam use may have impacted a military base there. Yet the problem is much broader, and U.S. officials are pushing to ensure firefighting foam and gear are safe.
“There’s no way that a firefighter would potentially contaminate his or her own hometown they’re there to try and protect right, or the base,” Peaslee told radio station WDEL. “If I’m on a burning plane, maybe this is what we want to use, but the rest of the time, we shouldn’t be using this, and we should treat it as a hazardous material.”