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Firefighters fear the toxic chemicals in their gear could be contributing to cancer cases

The chemical, which has been associated with health problems including several types of cancer, is used in turnout gear to repel water and other substances when fighting a fire

Firefighter Rod MacKinnon, left, and Lt. Chris Stevens don their turnout gear as they respond to a call at the Engine 21 fire station, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023
Firefighter Rod MacKinnon, left, and Lt. Chris Stevens don their turnout gear as they respond to a call at the Engine 21 fire station, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston.Michael Dwyer (AP)

Boston firefighter Daniel Ranahan had heard about colleagues getting cancer but he was stunned when doctors discovered a tumor in his chest.

He was only 30 and had been in the Boston Fire Department less than a decade. But as he investigated his diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in October 2020 and sought successful treatment, he learned he and others wore gear that contained the toxic industrial compound PFAS.

“You always hear about the dangers. You just never think it’s going be you,” said Ranahan, who stopped working due to the cancer and is among thousands of firefighters nationwide who sued PFAS manufacturers and companies that make firefighting gear and foam, seeking damages for their exposure.

“These guys put this on day in and day out to protect neighborhoods and wherever they are working,” he said. The Associated Press was not given access to his doctors due to the ongoing litigation, making it difficult to independently verify his claims.

The multi-layered coats and pants worn by firefighters have become the latest battleground over PFAS, or per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances. It’s found in everything from food packaging to clothing and is associated with health problems including several types of cancer. In March, the Environmental Protection Agency for the first time proposed limits on the chemicals in drinking water.

The news that PFAS compounds are in their gear — primarily meant to repel water and contaminants like oil and prevent moisture-related burns — is worrisome to firefighters.

The International Association of Fire Fighters or IAFF says that cancer has replaced heart disease as the biggest cause of line-of duty deaths. Firefighters have been shown to be at higher risk than the general population of getting several types of cancer.

Firefighters are exposed to a laundry list of carcinogens coming from fires burning hotter and faster than ever before — often due to increased petroleum products in homes. But as they learn more about PFAS, firefighters have grown suspicious that their personal protective equipment or PPE is sickening them.

“We had no idea that the gear that we were putting on every day was essentially loaded with PFAS,” said IAFF General President Edward Kelly, who was elected in 2021 on a campaign in part to address dangers of PFAS in gear.

Sam Dillon, president of Boston Firefighters, Local 718, said the union had to act.

“When we break it down, the problem to us becomes very simple,” he said. “There is proven science that PFAS is a known carcinogen. There is also proven science that PFAS is in protective gear that firefighters wear. So when its brought to our attention that there is a known carcinogen in the protective ensemble that our members wear, it is grave concern to the union and it’s our job to address that issue.”

One defendant in the lawsuits, 3M Co., said in a statement that it “manufactures a variety of personal protective equipment products that meet nationally recognized standards to help protect first responders facing high-hazard environments.” Last year, the company announced it would stop manufacturing PFAS by the end of 2025 and would work to discontinue using the chemicals in its products.

Another defendant, W. L. Gore & Associates, says the PFAS compound PTFE used in its clothing is nontoxic and safe.

“Based on the body of available and reliable science, Gore concludes its firefighting products are not the cause of cancers impacting firefighters, who by the nature of their important work are sometimes exposed to cancer-causing chemicals from fires,” said company spokesperson Amy Calhoun.

The American Chemistry Council said in a statement that “PFAS-based materials are the only viable options for some key equipment that meet the vital performance properties required for firefighting gear.”

Heightened concerns about gear

The PFAS has been in the gear for decades. But the wife of retired Worcester, Massachusetts fire lieutenant Paul Cotter who had cancer raised concerns about PFAS in gear in 2016. Until then, many firefighters had not heard of PFAS or did not know it was in their gear.

Gear makers told Diane Cotter there were only trace amounts of PFAS and it was safe. “I was attacked by firefighters when discussing the idea that chemicals in the gear could be causing cancer,” she said.

Cotter sent patches of gear to Graham Peaslee, a University of Notre Dame professor who studies PFAS, for testing.

“It was loaded with PFAS. That was the first eye opening moment that there may be more than just trace amounts,” said Peaslee, who also found the chemicals on gloves and in firehouse dust.

“They come off and they pose risks,” he said.

Courtney Carignan, an exposure scientist and epidemiologist at Michigan State University, said she found PFAS at twice the levels of the general population in the blood of more than half of the 18 firefighters she tested in Nantucket and Fall River, Massachusetts. She also found PFAS in gear was transferred to the skin of firefighters.

But Carignan is still investigating how much the gear contributed to increased levels of PFAS in the blood and whether PFAS exposure may be causing or contributing to cancer.

“Even though we know PFAS is in the gear, we still don’t know how much exposure that is,” she said.

Firefighters take actions

The revelation of PFAS in the gear sparked a campaign by firefighters to find safer alternatives and to hold companies responsible.

Lawsuits on behalf of firefighters argue they were exposed to significant PFAS levels and companies knew the gear contained PFAS and that it can cause serious health problems. The suits also allege companies misrepresented their products as safe.

The IAFF, which represents more than 340,000 U.S. and Canadian firefighters, decided in 2021 to no longer accept sponsorships or advertising from the chemical industry and to oppose PFAS in turnout gear. A Congressional bill introduced in July would accelerate the search for safer alternatives and support firefighter training to reduce exposure from existing gear.

Seven states including Washington, New Hampshire and New York passed bills requiring companies to disclose PFAS in their gear, according to Safer States, a coalition of environmental health groups. Several more states introduced or enacted bills this year that provide funds to purchase PFAS-free gear or prohibit manufacture or sale of gear containing the chemicals, according to Emily Sampson, an environment policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

No easy fix

For most fire departments, there is no easy fix. Replacing gear is expensive — one set can cost upwards of $4,000 — and finding alternatives has proven challenging. Some companies are promoting a PFAS-free outer layer but that doesn’t solve the problem because the other two layers still contain PFAS, the IAFF said.

Among the hurdles, according to a IAFF lawsuit filed in March, is that the National Fire Protection Association or NFPA standard for gear can only be met with PFAS-infused material. The suit accuses the NFPA of working with several gear makers to maintain that requirement. It seeks damages and an end to the standard.

Chris Dubay, NFPA vice president and chief engineer, said in a statement that the standard “does not specify or require the use of any particular materials, chemicals or treatments for that gear.” He said the group has no “special agreements or relationships with any company or organization” in development of standards.

“The manufacturers who are producing this gear owe it to the fire service to come up with an alternative,” Brockton Fire Chief Brian Nardelli, who has heard of companies promoting gear with less PFAS but is reluctant to buy it for his 231-member department without more proof.

Instead, his department tries to limit firefighter exposure to gear that’s been integral to firefighter identity. They would take it everywhere, including charity events. Now, Brockton discourages firefighters from wearing turnout gear in living quarters and encourages them to wash it after fires. It’s stored on trucks and is only to be worn for serious calls like fires and car accidents.

“Guys have seen everyone who has gotten cancer, guys dying from cancer,” said William Hill, the president of the Brockton Fire Fighters Local 144 who was successfully treated for testicular cancer. “Being told that PFAS is in the gear, guys don’t want to take the chance of being overexposed.”

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