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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.
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.”
By Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer This week, the medical journal Lancet published their annual report on health in relation to climate change, subtitling it: “code red for a healthy future.” The report delves beyond the obvious effects of wildfires, hurricanes, and extreme weather events — looking at food security; livelihoods; human physical and mental […]
By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer The EPA announced Monday that it will move toward regulating perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — manmade “forever chemicals” — that don’t naturally break down and can contaminate both air and water. These chemicals, found in various household products, from dental floss to nonstick pans, can also be harmful […]
The editors of over 230 medical journals said in a statement on Monday that climate change is a health issue and that its effects could become “catastrophic” if world leaders don’t do more to address it. The health impacts of climate change include wildfire smoke–which has been linked to an increase in positive COVID-19 cases–and pollutants […]
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