American Firefighters are the latest group to sound the alarm on forever chemicals. Here is the latest.
After her husband, a Massachusetts firefighter, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2014, Diane Cotter began to suspect that his firefighting gear was to blame. Since then, Ms. Cotter has fought hard for change in the toxic turnout gear, only to be rebuffed by the national firefighters union.
This week, in a significant reversal, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) changed course, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Now, it is urging its members to replace PFAS-laced gear with safer protective clothing and equipment and to reduce their exposure to PFAS wherever possible. The IAFF has, finally, acknowledged that the ‘forever chemicals’ in turnout gear likely contribute to the high rates of cancer in American firefighters.
If you’re new to this conversation and aren’t sure what all the buzz is about with “forever chemicals” like PFAS, PFOA, and PTFE, see our primer to catch up.
In 2022, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that working as a firefighter was itself carcinogenic. This follows a 2014 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study that found firefighters were 9 percent more likely to get cancer than the general population in the U.S. and 14 percent more likely to die from cancer.
Fighting the firefighters union
Ms. Cotter’s struggle started back in 2014. Concerned about potential carcinogens lurking in her husband’s firefighting uniform, she contacted hundreds of officials, firefighters, and scientists to find out. Eventually, it was the consumer advocate and environmental activist Erin Brockovich who asked Ms. Cotter if the gear contained per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
PFAS are often used in the outer shell of firefighting gear to repel oil and hazardous liquids. They are also added to a thermal liner and inner moisture barrier that is in direct contact with the wearer’s skin.
When manufacturers of the firefighting gear refused to reveal the presence or absence of PFAS, Ms. Cotter took a different approach. In 2017, she collected 30 sets of gear from across the U.S. and had these tested by a professor at the University of Notre Dame. The results, published in 2020, showed pounds of PFAS in every uniform. Later research by the same professor, Graham Peaslee, also revealed PFAS in dust in firehouses.
Still, when Ms. Cotter tried to get the IAFF to replace uniforms with PFAS-free versions, she was rebuffed. In 2017, the union said it wouldn’t recommend replacing turnout gear because it didn’t consider the gear a risk to firefighters’ health. At the time, the union was still receiving sponsorship money from the chemical companies making PFAS and the makers of PFAS-containing gear and foam.
Firefighters union acknowledges the dangers of PFAS
In 2021, at the IAFF’s annual convention, its delegates passed a resolution requiring the union to cut ties with chemical companies and gear manufacturers and stop accepting their money. The delegates also elected Edward Kelly as the union’s new president.
Since then, Mr. Kelly has been on his own mission to make turnout gear safer. So much so that he created roles in the union for a chief medical officer and chief science adviser to help focus on removing PFAS from gear. The union is also pushing for the federal government to enact legislation requiring turnout gear be totally free of PFAS.
In 2021, manufacturers began to offer turnout gear without PFAS in the outer shell or thermal liner; PFAS is still present in the moisture barrier.
In August, 2022, the union and the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association warned firefighters about the risks of PFAS. They went so far as to recommend their members not wear protective gear on calls where it wasn’t strictly necessary, and to handle and store their gear differently, to reduce the risk of PFAS exposure.
This weekend, at the IAFF’s leadership summit in Las Vegas, a screening is scheduled for “Burned”. Coming full circle, this documentary follows Ms. Cotter’s story and exposes the dangers of PFAS in firefighting gear.
Fighting fires with PFAS
Turnout gear isn’t the only exposure firefighters have to PFAS. For more than five decades, military and civilian firefighters have used PFAS firefighting foams. This has led to massive contamination at military installations. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) offers an interactive map showing 305 military sites with suspected discharges of PFAS-based firefighting foam.
The foams, known as Aqueous Film-Forming Foams (AFFF) enter drinking water and groundwater after use to fight fires and for training exercises on military bases and by civilian firefighters.
Most municipal water treatment plants don’t filter for PFAS, meaning surrounding communities are regularly exposed to these chemicals that are linked to various health issues, including:
- Cancer (especially testicular and kidney cancer)
- Reproductive health problems
- Immune system dysfunction
- Thyroid disease.
The chemicals in AFFF include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), which are persistent pollutants that bioaccumulate in humans and animals. As you go up the food chain, levels of PFAS biomagnify, i.e., increase. In New Jersey and elsewhere, local governments have issued warnings against consuming PFAS-contaminated fish from lakes and rivers.
Passing the buck – who’s suing who over PFAS?
The dangers of PFAS have been known for decades. In the last few years, a bevy of lawsuits have been filed, alleging harm caused by PFAS. These include a suit brought in April, 2022, by a business owner in New Jersey against 10 fire departments, the state of NJ, a county fire marshal, and National Foam for cleanup costs after the use of AFFF.
A month later, the Attorney General of New Jersey also brought a PFAS lawsuit. This time, the state is suing companies “for manufacturing and selling firefighting foam products in New Jersey for decades despite knowing those products released toxic and harmful chemicals into the environment.” The defendants include:
- The 3M Company
- Tyco Fire Products LP
- Chemguard, Inc.
- Buckeye Fire Equipment Company
- Kidde-Fenwal, Inc.
- National Foam, Inc.
- E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company
- The Chemours Company.
In a press release about the lawsuit, the Attorney General said, “The corporations we’re suing today knew full well the health and environmental risks associated with this foam, and yet they sold it to New Jersey’s firefighters anyway.” The state seeks damages in part to help fund the costs of investigating AFFF contamination and to remediate affected areas. The lawsuit also claims that these chemical companies deceived and defrauded the state, counties, municipalities, and local fire departments in their advertising and marketing of AFFF products.
Following New Jersey’s lawsuit, California’s Attorney General filed suit against The 3M Company, DuPont de Nemours Inc., and others in November, 2022. This suit also seeks damages to cover the cost of cleaning up PFAS. The suit follows a years-long investigation that concluded these companies marketed PFAS products for decades despite knowing they posed risks of cancer and other health problems.
Where else do you find PFAS?
Once you start looking, it seems like PFAS are everywhere. These chemicals have proven incredibly useful across a variety of industries and in a wide range of products, not just for firefighter gear and foams. PFAS are still present, for example, as stain repellents and waterproof coatings in:
- Carpets, rugs, and carpet tile
- Furniture covers and other household textiles
- Fast-food packaging and other food and beverage containers
- Cosmetics and personal care products (including some period underwear)
- Medical devices
- Paints and construction materials
- Waterproof technical gear
- Skis and snowboards
- Rain jackets and rainboots
- Non-stick cookware.
There are more than 9,000 per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) used in industry and consumer products in the last 70 years. More recently, these include GenX, or hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid, which largely replaced PFOA but may be just as damaging to health.
In Maine, the government warned hunters not to eat deer because they’re contaminated with PFAS. The same goes for fish in Minnesota and Wisconsin. And in Michigan, ranchers are dealing with contaminated beef thanks to polluted wastewater ending up in fertilizer.
The good news
In December 2022, the 3M Company said it would stop making PFAS. In a statement, the company said it would stop using the chemicals in its product by 2026.
While they await federal regulation, eleven states have already banned or restricted the sale of PFAS-based firefighting foams. These comprise: CA, CO, CT, HI, IL, ME, MD, NH, NY, VT, and WA.
Laws in Washington and Maine also allow for bans on PFAS in several products. PFAS is also being phased out of food packaging in:
- New York
- Rhode Island
Furthermore, CA, CO, MD, ME, and VT, are restricting the use of PFAS in carpets, rugs, and aftermarket treatments. Other moves to ban PFAS include:
- Restrictions on indoor and outdoor furniture and oil and gas products containing PFAS in Colorado
- Phase-outs of PFAS in children’s products in California
- A ban on PFAS in ski wax in Vermont
- Plans to remove PFAS in cosmetics in CA, CO, and MD.
As we already reported at Leaf Score, the Biden administration is keen to start cleaning up PFAS contamination and ensure safer drinking water across the U.S. To this end, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is developing a National Drinking Water Regulation for PFOA and PFOS.
It is expected that the rules will be finalized by the end of 2023 and will include a non-enforceable Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) and an enforceable standard, or Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) or Treatment Technique. The MCLG is the maximum level at which no known or anticipated adverse health effects would occur.
While we wait for this regulation to prompt water treatment plants to remove PFAS more effectively, there are ways to reduce individual PFAS exposure.
How to reduce your exposure to PFAS
Some of the best ways to limit your exposure to PFAS include:
- Avoiding household textiles made with PFAS-based water and stain repellents
- Ditching any non-stick cookware and bakeware made with PFAS (find better options here)
- Using your own takeout containers made with stainless steel, glass, or silicone
- Choosing PFAS-free cosmetics and personal care products
- Choosing PFAS-free ski wax
- Avoiding PFAS in technical wear and waterproof clothing.
The biggest thing you can do to reduce PFAS exposure, though, is to filter your household water. This means using an activated carbon filter or reverse osmosis filter for all water in the home, including water for cooking, drinking, and bathing. A whole home water filtration offers the simplest approach. Barring that, installing a drinking water filter and shower filter can help reduce key sources of exposure to PFAS in the home.