Every day at work for 15 years, Sean Mitchell, a captain in the Nantucket Fire Department, has put on the bulky suit that protects him from the heat and flames he faces on the job. But last year, he and his team came across unsettling research: Toxic chemicals on the very equipment meant to protect their lives could instead be making them gravely ill.
This week, Captain Mitchell and other members of the International Association of Fire Fighters, the nation’s largest firefighters’ union, are demanding that union officials take action. They want independent tests of PFAS, the chemicals in their gear, and for the union to rid itself of sponsorships from equipment makers and the chemical industry. In the next few days, delegates representing the union’s more than 300,000 members are expected to vote on the measure — a first.
“We’re exposed to these chemicals every day,” Captain Mitchell said. “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.”
The demands come as the safety of firefighters has become an urgent concern amid the worsening effects of climate change, which bring rising temperatures that prime the nation for increasingly devastating fires. In October, two dozen firefighters in California — where a record 4.2 million acres burned across the state last year — filed suit against 3M, Chemours, E.I. du Pont de Nemours and other manufacturers, claiming that the companies for decades knowingly made and sold firefighting equipment loaded with toxic chemicals without warning of the chemicals’ risks.
“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.”
“A lot of it migrates out and gets into the air that they’re breathing, and it’s on their hands, and their bodies,” Dr. Birnbaum added. “If they take their gear home to wash, they’re bringing PFAS back to their families.”
DuPont said it was “disappointed” with firefighters seeking to ban sponsorships and that its commitment to the profession was “unwavering.” 3M said it had “acted responsibility” on PFAS and remained committed to working with the union. Chemours declined to comment.
The risks of chemicals in firefighting equipment may seem to pale in comparison to the deadly flames, smoke-filled buildings or forest infernos that firefighters brave on the job. But over the past three decades, cancer has emerged as the leading cause of death for firefighters across the county, making up 75 percent of active-duty firefighter deaths in 2019.
Studies undertaken by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have found that firefighters have a 9 percent higher risk of getting cancer and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from the disease than the general United States population. Firefighters are most at risk for testicular cancer, mesothelioma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and rates haven’t declined, health experts point out, even though firefighters in the United States now use air packs similar to scuba gear to protect themselves from a fire’s toxic fumes.
“It’s not the traditional line-of-duty death, the firefighter falling through the floor, or the roof collapsing on us,” said Jim Burneka, a firefighter in Dayton, Ohio, who also runs Firefighter Cancer Consultants, which works with fire departments across the country to reduce cancer risks to their staffs. “It’s a new kind of line-of-duty death. It’s still the job that kills us. It’s just we die with our boots off.”
Though it is difficult to establish direct links between exposure to chemicals and cancer, particularly in individual cases, health experts have warned that exposure to chemicals is increasing firefighters’ cancer risks. One culprit: the foams that firefighters use to fight particularly hazardous blazes. Some states have moved to ban their use.
But a study published last year by researchers at the University of Notre Dame found significant quantities of similar chemicals in firefighters’ protective clothing, applied to keep the clothes water-resistant. The researchers found that those chemicals were shedding from the clothing or in some cases migrating into the coat’s inner layers.
The chemicals in question belong to a class of synthetic compounds, called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, found in a range of products including fast-food containers and furniture. Sometimes called “forever chemicals” because they don’t fully degrade in the environment, PFAS have been linked to a host of health effects, including cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, asthma and thyroid disease.
And while some forms of PFAS are being phased out, the replacements have not been proven to be safer, said Graham F. Peaslee, a professor in experimental nuclear physics, chemistry and biochemistry at Notre Dame who led the study.
“It’s one more risk factor, but it’s one that we can eliminate, whereas you can’t eliminate the risk of running into a burning building,” Dr. Peaslee said. “And firefighters aren’t told about this. So they’re wearing it, they’re lounging in it when they’re between calls,” he said. “That’s chronic exposure, and that’s not good.”
The Biden administration has said it would make PFAS a priority. In campaign documents, President Biden pledged to designate PFAS as a hazardous substance to make manufacturers and other polluters pay for cleanup, and set a national drinking water standard for the chemical. New York, Maine and Washington have moved to ban PFAS from food packaging, and other bans are in the works.
“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, a nonprofit group that works on environmental health. “Firefighters are disproportionately exposed, on top of all that.”
Lt. Ron Glass, president of the Orlando Professional Firefighters union, who has been a firefighter for a quarter-century, has lost two of his peers to cancer in the past year. “When I first got hired, the leading cause of death was a line-of-duty fire accident, then it was heart attacks,” he said. “Now it’s all cancers.”
“Initially, everybody blamed the different materials burning, or the foam. Then we started digging a little deeper into it and started looking at our bunker gear,” he said. “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.”
Lieutenant Glass and his colleagues are now pressing the International Association of Fire Fighters, which represents firefighters and paramedics in the United States as well as Canada, to run further tests. Their formal resolution, submitted to this week to the union’s annual convention, also asks the union to work with manufacturers to develop safer alternatives.
Captain Mitchell, meanwhile, is pressing the union to refuse future sponsorships from chemicals and equipment manufacturers, money he feels has slowed action on the issue. In 2018, the union received about $200,000 from companies including the fabrics manufacturer W.L. Gore and equipment maker MSA Safety, records show.
W.L. Gore said it remained confident in the safety of its products. MSA Safety did not respond to a request for comment.
Another obstacle is that manufacturers hold prominent positions at the body that oversees standards for firefighting gear, the National Fire Protection Association. Half the members of a committee that oversees protective-clothing and equipment standards, for example, are from industry. A spokeswoman for the group said the committees represented a “balanced variety of interests, including the fire service.”
Diane Cotter — whose husband, Paul, a firefighter in Worcester, Mass., was told seven years ago that he had cancer — was among the first to raise the concerns over PFAS in the gear. Her husband had just been promoted to lieutenant in September 2014, after 27 years of service. “But in October, his career was over,” Ms. Cotter said. “He had his cancer diagnosis. And I can’t tell you how shocking that was.”
She had heard that European firefighters were moving away from PFAS use, but when she started writing manufacturers in the United States, she “couldn’t get any answers,” she said. Action by the union is important, she said, though it would be too late for her husband. “The hardest thing is that he can’t return to work,” Ms. Cotter said.
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