Health concerns over firefighter gear made with ‘forever chemicals’
CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - In order to save others from dangerous situations, firefighters require a high degree of protection, but new research suggests that what is used to make their protective gear could pose a risk in and of itself.
It’s a hard pill to swallow for firefighters like Steve Azzarella, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer four years ago.
He’s still working, and putting on the turnout, or bunker, gear regularly. Every time is a tough reminder for him.
“It feels like a ton of bricks. It feels like weight on my shoulders of is this the time that I’m gonna get sick again?” he said.
Cancer is a leading cause of death for firefighters due to their multiple exposures to toxic chemicals on the job. Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances or “PFAS”, also known as “forever chemicals”, have been identified in both firefighting foam and most recently, protective gear.
The class of chemicals have been linked to cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“It’s doing the job but it’s also hurting us and possibly killing us,” Azzarella said.
There’s no telling what exactly caused Azzarella’s cancer, but his doctor says without a doubt he got it on the job. He has been working since he was 18.
The information doesn’t discourage him from the job, and wouldn’t have kept him from his passion, he says.
“I would still want to do it because this is what I was born to do and this is what I love doing,” he said.
Azzarella just wants the next generation to be better protected.
More research is needed but advocates want change now
Fire departments now have protocols in place like immediately washing gear after a call to cut their risk of exposure to carcinogens.
But PFAS are a more complicated challenge to tackle.
Several agencies in the Lowcountry, including but not limited to, Goose Creek Rural, Charleston, North Charleston, Mount Pleasant and Summerville fire departments currently use gear from manufacturers that have been sued for their use of PFAS in gear.
According to the International Association of Firefighters, there is no gear currently on the market that is made without the chemicals.
Bryan Ormond, a textile researcher at North Carolina State University, says that’s because these kinds of chemicals are really good at what they do in repelling both water and oil.
“They’re put there for a purpose,” Ormond said.
PFAS represent thousands of man-made chemicals that can be found in a variety of products, from non-stick cookware pans to electronics to food packaging, cosmetics and more that do not break down over time.
Goose Creek Rural Fire Department Chief Robert Maibach also agrees that added chemicals are a concern, but there are too many unknowns.
“Is that risk there? Yeah, is it greater than any other risk that we’re faced with again? We don’t really know that,” he said.
Most recently a federally-mandated study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology conducted at both its main campus in Maryland and the Charleston-based Hollings Marine laboratory and led by researcher Rick Davis confirmed PFAS are more concentrated in the outer layers of turnout gear jackets than the innermost layers touching the skin.
But researchers have concluded additional studies are needed to understand the exposure.
“We’re not just trying to solve a problem about today. We’re trying to understand where PFAS might be in the next 20 to 30 years because it just doesn’t go away,” Davis said.
Azzarella is not alone in his concerns about the gear and the International Association of Firefighters is not waiting for further proof to look for solutions and fast.
The group sued the National Fire Protection Association after a failed petition to remove a standard they believe imposes criteria that effectively requires the use of PFAS.
The lawsuit claims the NFPA is maintaining quote “an arbitrary and unreasonable standard” in a “civil conspiracy” with gear manufacturers that ensured “the usage of hazardous PFAS-chemicals in the moisture barrier layer of firefighters’ bunker gear” stifling the development of PFAS-free alternative gear.
The NFPA Vice President of Outreach and Advocacy Lorraine Carli responded to the lawsuit in a statement:
NFPA understands the complex health risks that come with firefighting, and we’re deeply sympathetic to the terrible toll that cancer takes on firefighters and their families. We’re proud of the role we’ve played in educating the fire service about firefighter cancer risks and supporting federal legislation to better understand the epidemiology around this important public health issue. For more than a century, we’ve worked hand-in-hand with the fire service on a shared mission to protect life and property in our communities, and that important work will continue.
Unfortunately, the IAFF has chosen to pursue a legal strategy the facts make clear is misguided and ill-informed. What’s more, the IAFF’s recent public comments about the lawsuit falsely portray NFPA, our standards development process, and the role the IAFF itself plays in that process. We won’t allow our organization, our people, or our valued volunteers to be disparaged or our long-standing process to be politicized by a meritless lawsuit.
However, Davis says new and ongoing research is promoting changes in the marketplace.
Solutions may come with trade-offs, costly hurdles
A major concern remains about what the quality of the gear will be like without PFAS.
Because the chemicals help to repel both water and oil, if either lacks it can compromise the safety the gear provides.
Ormond says for example if the gear cannot repel highly flammable diesel oil it could “catch fire.”
“It’s not a reason we can’t move forward to PFAS-free options, but it is something that firefighters have to know about before they put that new set of gear,” Ormond said.
Replacing gear is not cheap either.
One set of jacket and pants could cost between $3,000 and $5,000, Maibach explains.
“We’re in a no-win situation. We provide our folks with the best possible equipment that we can. We look out for them as best we can, " he said. “But every day there’s a new risk,” he added.
Ormond recommends all firefighters sign up for the National Firefighter Registry through the CDC, to help better scientists’ understanding of their cancer risks.
“Just because you have PFAS-free gear doesn’t mean that ends the issue of exposures to carcinogen compounds. And so from that standpoint, we have to make sure that firefighters continue to be diligent of looking at reducing exposures on the scene,” he said.
Statement from Motley-Rice attorney Anne McGinness Kearse, one of the groups representing the International Association of Firefighters:
“Firefighters face many risks when dedicating their lives to protecting others, however the exposure to carcinogens in the very gear designed to protect them is unacceptable. We owe it to them to confront this crisis directly, through accountability and necessary change. Motley Rice stands committed to advocating for retired and active fire fighters, aligning our efforts with the IAFF to fight for those suffering profound health effects from needless exposure to PFAS through their work.”
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