PFAS

We should be handling out gear as though it is riddled with a toxic chemical that comes off on your skin until proven otherwise.
We should be handling our gear as though it is riddled with a toxic chemical that comes off on your skin until proven otherwise. (Unsplash)

Everything comes with a cost

By Larissa Conroy               

Out of the four articles I have written to date, half of them have been brought under scrutiny at some point.  To say I never expected that to happen would be naive.  To say I was prepared for it when it happened would also be a lie.  If I’ve learned one thing, it is this: You will never be prepared for the scrutiny that comes along with putting your work out there.  In one case, someone made a biased Facebook post ridiculing what was strictly an opinion piece.  In the most recent case, a “qualified environmental professional” had this to say about my articles on PFAS:

“One recent example was Larissa Conroy’s recent article in FireRescue Magazine “What if I told you that your Turnout Gear was Causing Cancer,” an attention-grabbing title for sure, but one that is misleading and unsupported.”  – Dr. Paul Chrostowski

If anyone read Dr. Chrostowski’s article, there is a blurb saying, “The following is in response to a FireRescue Magazine article and is written by a manufacturers consultant.”  Following that blurb there is a manufacturing symbol before his article even starts.  What does that tell the typical layperson picking up this article?  He is being paid by a bunker gear manufacturing company to write this piece.  I’m sure he may have some good points about PFAS and any good reasoning as to why my article is incorrect.  However, you lose the majority of your audience and credibility once they figure out who you’re being paid by.  I’m sure if I was being paid to refute the existence of PFAS in bunker gear, I would absolutely be looking for any and all evidence contradicting its use in foam and bunker gear manufacturing.  Here’s my disclaimer:  I’m not a scientist. I’m still in school and working toward my bachelor’s degree.  Take what I say with a grain of salt.  However, Dr. Graham Peaslee has been working tirelessly.  He has been studying our bunker gear and the chemicals involved with its manufacturing, all of which he is doing pro bono.  He is not being paid by bunker gear manufacturers.  It is his work you should be reading, studying, and taking his advice to heart. Dr Peaslee’s research can be found here

Not one bunker gear company has come out and said, “We are having our gear tested by a third-party company to prove that the levels of PFAS are of no concern (or in trace amounts).”  All of what I have seen has been backpedaling and claims that PFAS has been discontinued in bunker gear when, in fact, it has not been discontinued and it has been proven by Dr. Peaslee’s research.  Companies have gone so far as to get other qualified professionals to put out statements refuting the existence of PFAS in bunker gear rather than offer to have their own gear tested.  It is much cheaper for these companies to pay someone else to refute claims about their bunker gear rather than own up to it.  They want to put the wool over the eyes of the everyday firefighter.  They want to make you believe that the gear is safe, all while they knowingly poison you and blame it on improper use of SCBA and other PPE.

Cancer has surpassed heart disease as the leading cause of death in firefighters.  A simple Google search will tell you that.  The question we should be asking is, “Why?”  Why are firefighters dying from cancer at an alarmingly higher rate when cardiovascular disease used to be the number one culprit of firefighter deaths? Yes, our fires are burning faster and more intense than fires 20 years ago.  Manufacturers have put so much emphasis on bunker gear now being able to withstand temperatures and be more heat and water resistant, but at what cost?  Everything has a cost.  We are not getting better or more advanced bunker gear without some sort of cost.  Is that cost the exposure to PFAS?  We need more answers.  Currently, the only person providing those answers is Dr. Peaslee. 

Dr. Chrostowski goes on to say that there is no link to PFAS and cancer, that there are no studies to support dermal absorption through the skin, and that alternatives have proven to be unsafe.  PFAS is linked to a number of health problems, including an increased risk of cancer.  That information comes straight from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  He is correct in his statement that there are no studies to support dermal absorption, because we don’t have the studies yet. We don’t know enough yet.  To write it off completely and treat you gear without due respect would be irresponsible.  We should be handling out gear as though it is riddled with a toxic chemical that comes off on your skin until proven otherwise.  Alternatives have proven to be unsafe because there are no alternatives.  Bunker gear that is PFAS free is still being manufactured and has not been tested yet.

The Burlington Presentations of the Firefighter’s Union traces PFAS/PFOA back to as early as May 2000.  A specific presentation by Dr. Roger Klein links the use of C6 and C8 in firefighting PPE, foam, textiles, paint, paper, etc.  C6 was the bunker gear manufacturer’s solution to the long-chain C8 chemicals that were being put in bunker gear.  They claimed that this C6 was safer and better than C8, when studies are showing it is not.  The EPA’s PFOA Stewardship program sought to have a reduction of PFOA by 95% in the year 2010.  The end goal was to have it completely phased out by 2015.  In Dr. Klein’s presentation, he includes a blurb that C6 has shown low toxicity compared to C8 chemicals.  Later in his presentation, he proves that those claims are untrue.  Dr. Klein concludes his presentation by saying ALL perfluorocarboxylic acids (C6, C8, C10, C12, etc.) are all persistent in the environment and bioaccumulative.  So why are we still involving these chemicals in the manufacturing of bunker gear?  There are safer ways to manufacture bunker gear without them.

Something we need to consider, as firefighters, is what we’re getting into when we think of an acceptable alternative for PFAS, PFOA, etc.  There are substances that are derivatives of PFOA that we need to be on the lookout for.  Just because we don’t see “PFAS” or “PFOA” in our foam or bunker gear does not mean it is necessarily safe.  Some to consider are acrylates, methacrylates, fluorosurfactants, and urethanes (Klein, 2016, slide 84) just to name a few.  These are all PFOA-related substances.  This, to me, is very important. PFOA-related substances still degrade in the environment, which means they still need to be treated with an abundance of caution.  Clearly, no matter what we choose to use, proper research and care are needed and not just the word from the manufacturer.  Myths and facts regarding C6 and other short-chain chemicals can be found here (Green Screen Policy Institute, 2018).

There is no substitute for bunker gear as of yet.  Not wearing it for a structure fire or any other hazard would be irresponsible.  However, that does not mean we should not push for more testing and demand the NFPA and IAFF take responsibility for protecting the firefighters that they are in the business of protecting.  Bunker gear manufacturers should be held accountable, and gear should be tested by a third-party company before it hits the market.  Finally, don’t take someone’s word for it just because they have “qualified environmental professional” or “Ph.D” behind their name.  Research for yourself, come to your own conclusions, and make absolutely certain that your information is coming from a reputable source–not someone who is being paid by bunker gear manufacturers. 

References:

Chrostowski, (June 3, 2020), Research and Independent Testing Shows Firefighters’ Turnout Gear Remains Safe Despite Claims, Retrieved from: https://firerescuemagazine.firefighternation.com/2020/06/03/research-and-independent-testing-shows-firefighters-turnout-gear-remains-safe-despite-claims/?fbclid=IwAR21IOq76L8ll9UWWZLtNxSDAUc_io420SW3GoNSqN9-XQrwMP2sm-QR-7A

Peaslee, (October 5, 2020), Researcher Responds to Claims About PFAS in Firefighter PPE Retrieved from: https://www.fireengineering.com/2020/10/05/494501/researcher-responds-to-claims-about-pfas-firefighter-ppe/?fbclid=IwAR3rb0GsdGNxSnyvsQuTYaN2qxBJrYaXrGO4lVySczIlxYdXyZn4rBXfRhg.

Peaslee, Wilkinson, McGuinness, Tighe, Caterisano, Lee, Gonzalez, Roddy, Mills, Mitchell, (Jun2020),  Another Pathway for Firefighter Exposure to Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances: Firefighter Textiles, Retrieved from: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.estlett.0c00410.

Shaffer, R., (January 11, 2019), Cancer Leading Cause of Death In Firefighters
https://www.worksitemed.com/firefighter-cancer/#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20International%20Association,cause%20of%20death%20among%20firefighters.

Sieff, J., (June 23, 2020), Gear Treated with ‘Forever Chemicals’ Poses Risk To Firefighters
https://news.nd.edu/news/gear-treated-with-forever-chemicals-poses-risk-to-firefighters/.

University of Notre Dame, (June 23, 2020), Gear Treated with ‘Forever Chemicals’ Poses Risk To Firefighters https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/06/200623145336.htm.

Green Screen Policy Institute, (June 1, 2018), Short-Chain Fluorinated Replacements: Myths versus Facts https://greensciencepolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Myths-vs.-Facts-June-2018.pdf.

Klein, R. A., (February 2016), PPE, Fluorochemicals, and the environment
Power Point Presentation from: Cambridge UK and Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies (RaCERS), John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, New York USA.

Larissa Conroy is a firefighter/paramedic for the Orlando (FL) Fire Department. She has an A.S. degree in emergency medical services; Fire Officer 1 certification; and several specialty certificates including Hazmat Technician, VMR Technician, Confined Space Technician, and many others. 

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