PFAS in Protective Gear Put Firefighters at Risk of Cancer 


By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has required PFAS, cancer-causing chemicals used in manufacturing, in firefighting gear for years despite cancer being the leading killer of firefighters. An extensive investigative two-part story by E&E News’ Ariel Wittenberg reveals not only the dangers of current equipment standards but the lengths the NFPA has gone to hide them.

Why This Matters: A study of 30,000 firefighters from 2010 to 2015 found that firefighters have an increased risk of many different cancers including: leukemia, malignant mesothelioma, bladder and prostate cancers, lung cancer, brain cancer, and digestive and oral cancers.  Not only are firefighters at higher risk of these cancers, but they’re also more likely to develop them at a younger age. While exposure to carcinogens like smoke and asbestos can be blamed for much of this heightened risk, researchers and advocates believe that PFAS in protective gear is also to blame. PFAS in firefighting gear may also put firefighters at a higher risk of severe COVID-19. Given that climate change is causing longer and more intense fire seasons in recent years, we need to protect our firefighters now more than ever — 37,000 were deployed last summer in California

Tainted Gear

When Nantucket, Massachusetts Fire Capt. Sean Mitchell began looking to buy new equipment for his department, he found that all protective firefighting clothing made before 2015 contained PFOA, a cancer-causing chemical compound. Many departments, like Mitchell’s, are still using old gear. But even those that upgrade aren’t safe from these chemical compounds. Despite PFOA being phased out of gear production, PFAS have not. “The gear doesn’t exist,” says Mitchell.

One major manufacturer of protective firefighting gear, Lion Apparel, has consistently told fire departments that their gear contains only trace amounts of PFAS and that studies “basically showed that this fabric and this turnout gear is safe to use,” citing studies of PFAS in workers by the University of California, Berkeley. But the author of those studies, Rachel Morello-Frosch, said that Lion and NFPA cherry-picked information that suited their arguments, and manipulated her studies to deceive firefighters.

For now, firefighters and their allies are speaking out and spreading awareness. Self-described “fire wife” Diane Cotter has been actively fighting to get PFAS out of protective gear ever since her husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and led a charge to alert firefighters across many departments of the issue. “When you start looking at it, you’re trying to prove yourself wrong — because these companies are supposed to be protecting your family,” she said. “But they aren’t telling us about the problem, and our fleet needed to know.”

To Go Deeper:  Read both stories here.  They are worth your time.

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