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Local firefighters fear their gear is poisoning them. Now they’re teaming up to find out

On a frigid day at the Nantucket Fire Department headquarters, nearly two dozen firefighters were starting to sweat.

One group spotted each other as they took turns hurrying up and down a ladder with a 40-pound weight to simulate rescuing a child from a burning house. Nantucket firefighter David Pekarcik looked on, unfazed.

“There are heavier mannequins. Others weigh, like, 150 pounds, 200 pounds,” he said.

The firefighters in the room were gathered here from the island, from Fall River, and Hyannis.

Nearby, a Fall River firefighter smashed a coiled fire hose with a sledge hammer over and over, before he ran out of breath. Across from him, a Nantucket firefighter got down on one knee and sprayed a cinder-block wall with a high-power stream of water, and then he continued – on his knees – up a flight of stairs.

“It’s like a crabwalk” Pekarcik said.

Each firefighter was training while wearing fire-resistant jackets, pants, and boots. The cumbersome black-and-yellow gear weighs around 25 pounds, though additional protective equipment worn in the field often makes the load much heavier.

Firefighters often participate in drills just like these – but the goal is usually to practice for on-the-job scenarios. This time it was different. Epidemiologist and exposure scientist Courtney Carignan stood in the corner, watching them.

The assistant professor from Michigan State University is studying whether toxic chemicals known as PFAS are working their way from firefighters’ gear into their bodies. The results could eventually help lead to the standardization of protective apparel that’s made with less, or even zero, PFAS chemicals.

“So what they did was, they took a baseline of where your levels of this chemical are on your skin currently,” explained Joshua Hetzler, a Fall River firefighter. “And we were told, ‘Don't touch your gear this morning, don't come in contact with any chemicals this morning.’”

After baseline measurements, the firefighters spent over an hour exercising in the gear, “simulating activity levels that they would have during a fire,” Carignan said.

The before-and-after measurements will be analyzed in a laboratory in the coming months.

“That will help tell us how much PFAS is actually loading onto their skin from the gear,” she explained.

PFAS Concerns Grow for Firefighters

High levels of PFAS exposure have been linked to cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, asthma, thyroid disease, and more.

This class of “forever” chemicals, known for their oil-, water-, and stain-resistant properties, don’t break down in the body. And they’re used in more than just fire protection gear. They can be found in microwave popcorn bags, rain jackets, and makeup, among other consumer products.

“Most people have measurable levels of PFAS [chemicals] in their bodies,” Carignan said. “We know that there's over 9,000 PFAS. We know that hundreds have been produced and used in commerce over the past 50 years. But we currently are only able to measure for maybe 60 PFAS.”

Studies have shown that firefighters have higher levels of PFAS than the average American, and they have a 9 percent higher risk of getting cancer.

In fact, on Nantucket, about 15 to 20 current and former firefighters have been diagnosed with cancers associated with high PFAS exposure in the last few years, according to deputy Fire Chief Sean Mitchell.

Linking PFAS to firefighters’ individual ailments is tricky. Firefighters are exposed to PFAS in burning homes and many different carcinogens while performing their duties.

But one thing that can be controlled in their work environment is PFAS in their gear.

Firefighters Take this Battle Personally

“There's no way shape or form there should ever be [PFAS] in your protective equipment,” said Fall River firefighter Jason Burns.

“Think about that for a second. I have a toxic chemical in unseen amounts in my personal protective equipment. I'm told by leaders in the industry I should be handling it with gloves on. It's remarkable. This is what I use to protect me.”

For Burns, this fight started years ago, when he buried two fellow firefighters: Paul Chippendale and Adam Franco. Both died of cancer in their 30s, he said.

“Something just hit me and I said, ‘Something else is going on.’ How can we go a whole generation of firefighters and they're getting that at 50 and 60 and 70? And why is my generation getting it at 30?”

“That's why I'm here: for them and for these guys,” Burns said, gesturing to the firefighters around the room, “so they can be there for their families. I've looked into the eyes of too many widows, and the eyes of too many fatherless kids. I'm not doing it anymore.”

Forging Ahead 

By June, Carignan expects to be able to tell firefighters in the study how much PFAS sheds onto them after wearing gear for a few hours. She’ll also be able to estimate – using blood tests – each firefighter’s cumulative lifetime exposure to PFAS.

That’s scary for some firefighters, but the Fall River and Nantucket departments will be ready with resources, Burns said.

“What we're trying to do is teach them to advocate for themselves. ‘Go to your doctor. Bring this paperwork.’ These chemicals target certain body parts, so they need to be under surveillance way more than the average person,” he said.

No matter what the studies show about the dangers of their gear, the study participants on this day were resolute. When asked if they’d consider giving up the profession, one after another firefighter said no.

“I signed up to do – and I want to do – this job,” said Hetzler. “And right now, I know that my gear is a cause of concern. But the need for a fire service and people who are willing to do that is obviously much greater.”

“Somebody has to still fight fires.”

More information and resources on firefighter gear can be found at https://www.pfasfreeppe.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Jason Burns as Fall River Fire Chief. He is a firefighter and former union president.

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