Firefighters sound the alarm on PFAS chemicals

Ask lawmakers to ban PFAS in firefighter personal protective equipment

Paul Jacques and Sean Mitchell and Jason Burns Jul 9, 2022

From Commonwealth on Line, July 9, 2022

IF YOU WERE to call 911 right now, firefighters would arrive at your door within four minutes.  They would assess the problem and not leave until it was resolved.

Massachusetts firefighters have a problem, and we are sounding the alarm.  Our firefighter personal protective equipment — the uniforms we wear to fight fires and respond to emergencies — contain toxic per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

PFAS are a class of chemicals linked to a wide array of health problems.  PFAS cause testicular cancer, kidney cancer, endocrine disruption, immune suppression, liver disease, altered mammary gland development, and asthma, among many other health problems.

Independent studies have shown that the PFAS in firefighter gear remains in the air and dust of Fire Stations.  Every day firefighters inhale, ingest, and absorb PFAS. Each time we wear or touch our gear we physically absorb PFAS.  Additionally, when our uniforms are cleaned, toxic PFAS are washed down floor drains into the local community’s wastewater.

According to the International Association of Firefighters, 75 percent of line of duty deaths in 2021 were due to occupational cancer. Cancers are killing our firefighters at alarming rates, so we must take the opportunity to limit our exposure to any additional chemicals that are not deemed essential for function or use in society, especially when innovation has shown safer alternatives are available. Our constant and unnecessary exposures to PFAS must come to an end.

The solution?  Massachusetts firefighters are asking the State Legislature to ban PFAS in firefighter personal protective equipment

Until recently, most of us had never heard of PFAS.  We understood the dangers associated with smoke and fire, but never imagined the uniforms we wear could contain harmful toxic chemicals.

For decades, chemical manufacturers promoted the benefits of PFAS.   They worked with government regulators to require the use of PFAS-containing firefighting foam. Representatives from chemical companies and gear manufacturers joined the Technical Committees of the National Fire Protection Association and created standards that required PFAS be added to firefighters’ gear. All the while, these chemical companies were funding research that seemed to minimize the harmful effects of PFAS while promoting their sales and increasing profits.

Consequently, it is impossible to purchase personal protective equipment that does not contain PFAS.  That means, while Massachusetts is paying millions to clean up PFAS contamination in drinking water, firefighters continue to be forced to wear gear with those very same chemicals.

That isn’t right.  The gear we use to protect us should not shorten our lives or expose us to chemicals so harmful they need to be regulated at a “parts per trillion” level. We are asking the Massachusetts Legislature to act urgently, before the end of July 2022, and pass H2475/S1576 An Act relative to the reduction of certain toxic chemicals in firefighter personal protective equipment.

Meet the Author

Paul Jacques and Sean Mitchell and Jason Burns

Sean Mitchell is deputy chief of the Nantucket Fire Department; Paul Jacques is the legislative agent for Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts; Jason Burns is the District 8 vice president for Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts.