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Dangers faced by firefighters compounded by ‘forever chemicals’

The substances are found in smoke and ash, fire-suppressing foam and firefighters’ gear

Memphis firefighter Jesse Powell is part of a federal lawsuit claiming exposure to PFAS caused his prostate cancer.
Memphis firefighter Jesse Powell is part of a federal lawsuit claiming exposure to PFAS caused his prostate cancer. (Photo courtesy Jesse Powell)

​In the growing mass of litigation over the impacts of “forever chemicals,” cases filed by thousands of firefighters are getting increased attention, both in Congress and in the courts.

A major reason is that firefighters face a triple threat from exposure to per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, or PFAS: in the smoke and ashes from fires, in the foam used to suppress flames and in the gear meant to protect them from fire, heat and water.

Take the case of Jesse Powell, a firefighter in Memphis, Tenn., with 20 years of service who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2021 and then, after the cancer spread following his prostatectomy, underwent 34 rounds of radiation therapy.

“That’s a life-changing thing,” Powell said in an interview. He’s far from alone — the International Association of Fire Fighters says as many as two-thirds of firefighter deaths between 2002 and 2019 were caused by cancer.

Powell is one of more than 20,000 firefighters who have joined a lawsuit in federal court against PFAS manufacturers and distributors, claiming harm from the toxic compounds used for decades in thousands of products, from nonstick cookware and stain-resistant fabrics to household cleansers and personal care goods.

The firefighters are in one of three classes of plaintiffs in the multidistrict litigation being heard in U.S. District Court in South Carolina, said a lead attorney in the case, Greg Cade of the Environmental Litigation Group based in Birmingham, Ala. The others, states suing for natural resource damages and water utilities seeking testing and remediation costs, are on separate tracks in the litigation before U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel.

The firefighters seek damages from exposure to flame-suppressing foams and turnout gear containing PFAS, which they say companies like DuPont de Nemours Inc. and 3M Co. have long known can cause a range of health problems, Cade said.

“PFAS has certainly been linked to cancer: kidney, testicular and prostate cancer are the top three we see over and over again,” he said. “Other cancers too — bladder, pancreatic, liver — over and over again. So when you see thousands and thousands of firefighters with those exact reoccurring cancers, we say that’s exactly the result of being exposed to PFAS-related chemicals.”

Congress passed legislation last year requiring federal agencies to come up with guidance for reducing PFAS exposure among firefighters, and a bill is pending in the House that would authorize $25 million a year over four years for research and development of alternatives to PFAS in foam and gear.

‘It’s embarrassing’

Powell said both the outer and middle layers of firefighters’ turnout gear contain PFAS that leach into their clothing and then their skin when they sweat while in action at a fire.

As for the foam, he said, “We’ve used that on car fires and other fires. Once we use it in a house you’re walking knee-deep in it.”

Powell, who has 12 children and eight grandchildren, now suffers from impotence and incontinence. He’s back at work but not as a first-responder, and life is not the same.

“I can’t even pick up my grandkids sometimes,” he said. “It’s embarrassing. And no matter how you train your body you can’t hold it. Even when I sneeze.”

Courtney Carignan, an exposure scientist and environmental epidemiologist at Michigan State University who is leading a forthcoming study of PFAS in firefighters’ blood, said those exposed to firefighting foam generally have higher levels.

But she added that “we need to consider all three pathways” of exposure: through smoke, foam and turnout gear. “We don’t have a good estimate of how much is coming from each source,” Carignan said.

Another PFAS researcher, University of Notre Dame physics professor Graham Peaslee, published a study in 2020 that found that six brands of protective equipment for firefighters were “treated extensively with PFAS or constructed with fluoropolymers, a type of PFAS used to make textiles oil and water resistant.”

Peaslee said in a news release with the study that there is little doubt the chemicals are getting into firefighters’ bodies.

“If they touch the gear, it gets on their hands, and if they go fight a fire and they put the gear on and take it off and then go eat and don’t wash hands, it could transfer hand to mouth,” he said. “And if you’re sweating and you have sweat pores, could some of these chemicals come off on the thermal layer and get into the skin? The answer is probably.”

Searching for substitutes

The International Association of Fire Fighters, which represents more than 340,000 U.S. and Canadian firefighters, has filed its own lawsuit in Massachusetts Superior Court against equipment manufacturers and the National Fire Protection Association, which sets standards for turnout gear.

The IAFF argues that the NFPA’s testing method, which requires gear to be exposed to ultraviolet light for 40 hours without degradation, “effectively requires the use of PFAS in fire fighter protective gear.”

In an August filing responding to the lawsuit, the NFPA denied that it requires “the use of any particular materials, chemicals or treatments for that gear. It does require a moisture barrier test to ensure the gear will protect the wearer. The manufacturer decides how to comply with that test. Even then, it’s entirely at the discretion of organizations and jurisdictions whether to use the standard.”

One maker of turnout gear, W. L. Gore & Associates, told The Associated Press in September that the chemicals it uses are safe.

“Based on the body of available and reliable science, Gore concludes its firefighting products are not the cause of cancers impacting firefighters, who by the nature of their important work are sometimes exposed to cancer-causing chemicals from fires,” said Gore spokesperson Amy Calhoun.

But Cade, the attorney for firefighters in the federal case, believes PFAS can and should be removed from the equipment.

“Frankly I see no real basis to put it in the clothing,” Cade said. “I think there are a number of things that can be done, whether it’s a substitute chemical — and there have been some out there that say their chemical can be just as protective as PFAS — or just remove the stuff in general. I don’t think there’s anything about the clothing and the use of PFAS that makes it something special.”

Michigan State’s Carignan also said there are alternatives to firefighting foam containing PFAS. “Other countries have been using it for a while now,” she said. “There are non-fluorinated alternatives available,” although the Defense Department is still studying if they are as effective in high-intensity fires from jet fuel.

Congress has taken an interest in the problems posed by PFAS for firefighters.

A law enacted last December requires the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Fire Administration to publish new training guidance by the end of this year on ways to reduce or eliminate exposure to PFAS from firefighting foam and protective equipment. The USFA, part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, did not respond to a request for a status report on the guidance.

A House bill sponsored by Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., with 40 co-sponsors, would authorize $100,000 over four years for research and development of firefighting foam and equipment without PFAS. The bill was referred in July to the Homeland Security, Science, and Transportation and Infrastructure committees.

“They know the stuff that we encounter causes cancer,” said Powell, the Memphis firefighter. “Maybe they can change the method of treating gear. … With all the younger guys coming on, the cycle must end.”

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