International Association of Firefighters’ announcement of carcinogenic chemicals in PPE presents quandary for Ozarks fire districts

Published: Mar. 14, 2023 at 6:52 PM CDT
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BATTLEFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - On Tuesday at the Battlefield Fire Station, employees were busy cleaning and washing down their trucks in what is now a regular part of a decontamination process after fire calls. That decontamination also involves washing all the firefighters’ gear after they were placed in sealed bags at the fire scene.

The days of firefighters throwing their unwashed gear in the back of their car after fighting a blaze are highly discouraged these days as the industry has learned more about the carcinogenic dangers of smoke and burning items at the scene.

How important are the findings?

Well, cancer has replaced heart attacks as the number one cause of firefighter deaths, and the industry is working hard to educate its workers on taking proper precautions like not taking protective gear into firehouse living areas, putting the used gear in bags before transporting it, cleaning the trucks after every fire, washing hands after handling gear and the importance of wearing a breathing apparatus at a fire scene.

But the International Association of Fire Fighters is now involved in yet another cancer-related fight by releasing research showing that “forever chemicals” known as PFA’s are found in firefighter protective gear. PFAs have been linked to cancer, but those chemicals are an important ingredient in the materials that serve as a water-repellent coating in the firefighter’s three-layered coat.

“When we’re talking about it being in our PPE (personal protective equipment) we’re talking about moisture barriers,” said Battlefield Fire Protection Chief Scott Moore. “Keeping water off of us. Our coats have an outer layer, an inner lining and then on the back side of that is a moisture barrier. The inner liner is more of a thermal barrier. The exterior layer is designed to protect you from heat, chemicals, and water, plus cuts and lacerations. So realizing it’s that technical, the idea that there’s a chemical involved that’s bad for us is not surprising.”

Manufacturers stopped using PFAs in the outer shell in 2022, but they’re still used in the inner layer, and right now that’s pretty much the only choice the industry has in PPE.

Just the coats and pants cost around $3,000 (not including helmets, gloves or breathing apparatus), and the clothing needs to be replaced every 10 years.

“There’s not that many vendors that create fire fighting gear,” pointed out Battlefield Division Chief Shane Anderson. “In many cases, departments that are looking to purchase gear put their order in and have to wait up to a year to get a pair of pants and a coat.”

PFA’s are present in all our daily lives.

In fact, on Tuesday the EPA proposed its first standards for making drinking water safer from forever chemicals.

Research has also turned up forever chemicals in all types of food packaging we get at fast-food restaurants and grocery stores.

And potential carcinogens lurk in many places in the firefighting world.

“We see it in firefighting foam,” Anderson said.

“When you go into many fire stations, you see yellow hoses hanging from the ceiling that goes into the truck exhaust,” Moore added. “That’s for diesel exhaust which is a cancer mitigation. Then there are also the items that are in people’s homes that are burning. Fire burns twice as fast today as it did 10 years ago, and as these chemicals are released, they’re attaching to our gear.”

Of all those potential cancer-causing areas, Moore was asked which one has the industry made the most inroads in addressing.

“We have the ability to have the greatest impact on the smoking environment,” he answered. “We can require personnel to take extra measures to protect themselves in that environment, so we focus on that area.”

And they’re also looking to address health concerns in other areas.

“This year, we started coronary calcium tests so we can identify future risks of cardiac events,” Anderson said.

And as to what’s ahead in the PFA fight?

“This initial step from the IAFF is asking that the work gets done to access this and see if we can eliminate PFA’s in what we do,” Moore answered. “The fire service is inventive and is good at finding different ways to do it.”

“But we’re not going to replace that equipment with untested products,” Anderson added. “There’s a lot to unpack here, especially with the risks we know that are already being experienced from normal products of combustion that we deal with. Before we put our people into different gear we want to make sure it’s tried, true and tested. It has to give them the protection that we have the duty to provide them.”

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