With fires raging all along the west coast this season, the importance of firefighters’ work has never been more clear. But beyond the obvious dangers are the toxic hazards they face at work. For many, one of their greatest concerns is the chemical exposures they get on the job and the potential for those exposures to lead to cancer. Cancer is now the leading cause of death among firefighters, and they have higher rates of cancer than the general population.
In recent years, we have worked alongside the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters who have been raising concerns about exposure to PFAS because of its use in firefighting foam and the protective gear worn to fight fires. Now, thanks to Washington’s 2018 law along with independent scientific research, we have new information about the use of PFAS in turnout gear.
The law adopted in 2018 contained a provision requiring makers of turnout gear to disclose whether it contains PFAS. This means that fire departments buying the gear must receive this information and the Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) now has information from a number of manufacturers about the use of PFAS. All of the responding makers of turnout gear reported use of PFAS, in various forms. For gloves, reports were mixed, with some using PFAS and some free of the chemicals. Some of the reports provide more details, stating that turnout gear contains multiple PFAS-containing layers. These reports, which confirm the widespread use of PFAS in turnout gear, are available from the Department of Ecology with a public records request. They indicate that companies such as Tencate, Fire-Dex, and Lion all use PFAS in turnout gear.
This summer, Dr. Graham Peaslee’s group at University of Notre Dame published new research investigating the use of PFAS in turnout gear. The researchers collected about 30 sets of used and new turnout gear and measured total fluorine, as an indicator of the presence of PFAS, using the PIGE method, as well as individual PFAS in some of the samples. High levels of total fluorine were found in two layers of the turnout gear: the moisture barrier and the outer shell. Since the moisture barrier is typically made with a fluoropolymer, the fluorine levels were more than 30% and actually too high to measure accurately with the PIGE method. Interestingly, the researchers also found PFAS in the thermal liner, the layer next to the skin, possibly as a result of migration from other layers.
Under the Safer Products for Washington law, Washington State is moving forward to address the use of PFAS in home textiles such as upholstery and carpets. This is a very important step, but Ecology has not responded to requests to address turnout gear.
We now have clear evidence of the extensive use of PFAS in turnout gear as well as indications of firefighter exposure from the gear. Ecology should prioritize PFAS in turnout gear and start looking for safer alternatives to protect the health of firefighters.