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Firefighter Gear Full of Chemicals — How Dangerous Are They?

A recent study shows that the turnout gear firefighters wear is full of chemicals to keep it dry, but those chemicals, known as PFAS, have been known to be toxic and may be contributing to diseases.

Firefighters battle a fire outdoors in Vacaville, California.
Firefighters battle fires along Lyon road during the Hennessy Fire on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020 in Vacaville, Calif. Firefighters' gear contains chemicals that may be harmful.
It’s been known for a while that chemicals in firefighting foam have dangerous chemicals that mostly last forever and can damage human tissue and spread in the environment.  

But more recent studies indicate that the protective garments (turnout gear) firefighters wear also contain these chemicals that may be the cause of disease in firefighters and perhaps others.  

The fluorine chemicals are polyfluoroalkyl, or PFAS, substances contained within the gear as a waterproofing agent; until recently, firefighters were told by the manufacturers that they were safe. Maybe not. 

PFAS are a class of chemicals, so many that some don’t even have names, that are highly toxic and linked to a number of health problems at even low doses. One of those PFAS, PFOA, has been studied the most and is linked to testicular and kidney cancers and weakened immune systems.  

A recent study by the University of Notre Dame, published in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, looked at turnout gear collected with the help of the wife of a firefighter who had been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer.  

Graham Peaslee, a chemical physicist at Notre Dame, and his team examined the gear and found that the shell was more than 2 percent fluorine by weight and that the moisture barrier averaged more than 30 percent fluorine. Peaslee called it the most highly fluorinated textile he’d ever seen.  

“We know there are so many firefighters getting cancer — where is it coming from?” Peaslee said when contacted by Emergency Management.  

We know that fires are getting more toxic because of the materials that burn, and we know the foam, which is being replaced, is toxic. So how do the PFAS factor in? 

“One of the things this PFAS does to your body is it is correlated to a couple of cancers, testicular and kidney cancer,” Peaslee said. “But we also know it’s an immune suppressant, so what if it just knocks your immune system down some?” 

Experts also know that PFAS escape into the environment and don’t break down, thus the term “forever chemicals.” They’ve been found in polar bears in the North Pole.  

Linda Birnbaum is a toxicologist and microbiologist who formerly led the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and has called for PFAS, all 9,000 or so of them, to be regulated the same. 

“Many of the compounds are exceedingly mobile in the environment, which means that they don’t stay where they’re put or produced or used,” Birnbaum said. “The Arctic is very contaminated now, and I should say not only the ice and snow but the critters that live up there, including our indigenous peoples.” 

Birnbaum said the problem of PFAS in turnout gear just appeared on her radar rather recently and there are so many questions still to entertain.  

“Remember, all of these PFAS [used in turnout gear] are used as simple additives; they’re just mixed in, so there’s nothing that is chemically bonding them to the fabric or anything else,” she said. “Over time they leach out, and people have shown the level of dust around where firefighting gear is stored as being very high.” 

Birnbaum acknowledged that firefighters are getting sick at a higher rate than average citizens but that it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact cause.

“We are finding that firefighters have a higher incidence of tumors at younger ages than the general population,” she said. “Yes, PFAS have been associated with testicular cancer and kidney cancer, and there’s also data suggesting breast cancer in women and liver and pancreatic cancers.” 

“We tend to try to reduce things down and say, ‘Well, what caused this,’ and in most cases, it's not just one thing, there are multiple agents.” 

Peaslee agreed that it’s difficult to pin down the causes of such diseases with all the risks that firefighters face. “It doesn’t prove a causation, but what happens if these exposures are causing other diseases we haven’t looked for yet, which is quite possible,” he said.  

“What if it knocks down the immune system for an opportunistic disease?” Peaslee said. “So if you look at populations with suppressed immune systems, they get leukemia, multiple myeloma, all sorts of things that the firefighters are getting.” 

The best long-term solution to the problem is to replace the PFAS with another agent that keeps the gear dry and doesn’t allow it to get waterlogged. There is at least one company, Peaslee said, that is working on it.  

Until then, short-term solutions for firefighters are:  

  • Keep the gear hung separately from where you bunk at the fire station.
  • Have the floors mopped twice as often.
  • Don’t let kids wear the gear.
  • Only wear the gear when absolutely necessary.  
The International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) didn’t respond to a request for an interview, but in a statement to Bloomberg News last year called the Notre Dame study “important,” and said, “This research, in addition to the numerous studies sponsored by the IAFF, provides necessary information to make changes to protect our members on the frontline.”