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Firefighters Blast Decision to Allow Toxic PFAS Chemicals to Stay in Their Gear

Alana Macey with the Nantucket Fire Department in low-PFAS gear. Island firefighters are among the first in the country to have turnout gear with an outer layer that is completely free of PFAS.
Kevin Ramos
Alana Macey with the Nantucket Fire Department in low-PFAS gear. Island firefighters are among the first in the country to have turnout gear with an outer layer that is completely free of PFAS.

Firefighters across the region are decrying a decision by a Quincy-based association that sets national fire safety standards to allow the continued use of toxic “forever chemicals” called PFAS in the manufacture of protective gear.

The decision, announced by the National Fire Protection Association on the eve of September 11th memorials, will mean that cancer-causing chemicals will remain virtually required in firefighting gear, exposing firefighters to PFAS through occupational hazards and their gear indefinitely. PFAS have been linked to kidney, testicular, prostate, breast, liver, and ovarian cancers, among other diseases. Studies show firefighters generally have higher levels of PFAS in their blood than the general public.

“Every every firehouse in Massachusetts, across the country, and really across the world has been touched by cancer and we're really seeing younger and younger firefighters being diagnosed with all sorts of cancer and some of them very rare cancers,” said Nantucket Deputy Fire chief Sean Mitchell. “But the one thing that we would like to have control of is what we are exposing ourselves to every day. And when we expose ourselves to our turnout gear, and it's full of these PFAS chemicals which are likely harming firefighters, and I think we’ve seen firefighters stand up and say, ‘We don’t want that anymore.’”

Firefighters and anti-PFAS groups asked the association’s Standards Council to stop requiring the middle layer in their turnout gear, known as the moisture barrier, to withstand 40 hours of continuous UV light. Passing that test essentially requires the use of textiles containing PFAS.

“Firefighters, we take this job and we know there are risks. … And a lot of our work is sort of designed around how to reduce those risks,” Mitchell said. “But this is one that we really are unable to reduce or eliminate because of the way the standard is written.”

In recent years, the validity of the 40-hour UV test has faced criticism because the middle layer of equipment is never exposed to 40 hours of UV light. Many scientists and activists opposed to the standard say they don’t believe that the UV requirement makes sense, so the vote by members of the committee — which is made up of industry consultants, textile and gear manufacturers, and representatives of fire departments — could have removed the standard, allowing manufacturers to begin designing and producing fully PFAS-free gear.

“Even though all the firefighters have spoken — including the International Association of Fire Fighters, who represents 325,000 firefighters in North America, [which] said, ‘We don't want PFAS in our turnout out gear,’ — the NFPA has chosen repeatedly to deny us of that,” Mitchell added. “And so we will continue to be exposed unnecessarily to these chemicals.”

In a letter explaining the decision, representatives for the fire protection association said removing the test before understanding how it could affect the moisture barrier could pose serious risks to firefighter safety. They also said the issue of PFAS in turnout gear will be considered by a task force to make a later recommendation.

“The Council notes that all parties in favor and against this appeal agreed that [opponents to the standard] raise timely, important issues, therefore the Council directs that the progressing Task Group work on this issue be expedited.”

Mitchell called the explanation “nonsense.”

“I think that comes straight out of the industry playbook that we've seen for years dating back to the tobacco industry and climate change deniers and the chemical industry,” he said. “They use fear to try to protect their products and protect themselves from liability, and that's what they've done here. So it is nonsense. I think the standard is already endangering firefighters and that's what we were trying to change.”

Ayesha Khan, whose husband is a firefighter on Nantucket, formed the Nantucket PFAS action group after her husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer at age 38. She said her group has already secured funding to buy PFAS-free gear for Nantucket firefighters if the association had approved the change. Now, they will move forward with buying more low-PFAS gear.

“What [the decision] means, for me, is that my husband will continue to wear gear with PFAS in it while he's in remission from testicular cancer and that sucks,” she said. “It doesn't feel comforting or protective of his health by any means.”

The group had already helped five firefighters on Nantucket become among the first in the nation to use turnout gear with an outer layer that is completely free of PFAS. Mitchell said his support for the effort was inspired by the health problems of his colleagues; in the last few years, he said, around 15 to 20 current and former Nantucket firefighters have been diagnosed with cancers associated with high PFAS exposure.

“We have been awaiting this NFPA decision in the hopes that within a few months to a year, we'd be able to replace all of the gear and go completely PFAS-free, but we still don't know when that's going to happen,” he said. “So we will be buying the lower PFAS gear, which at least will start to reduce some of the exposure to our firefighters.”

Khan said she and a coalition of other anti-PFAS activists will be meeting this week to discuss next steps.

“We aren’t giving up,” Mitchell said.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.