What If I Told You That Your Bunker Gear Was Causing Cancer?

We want to live long, healthy lives
after we retire

How do we go about fixing this? (Unsplash, Matt Chesin)

By Larissa Conroy

We all believe that our bunker gear is keeping out the big “C” word (cancer). What if I told you that the same bunker gear you’re wearing contains chemicals that are linked to cancer? How bad do you want to go out and put your gear on now? The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has minimum requirements for what your bunker gear should do. NFPA 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, states that your gear must have an outer shell, thermal liner, and moisture barrier. It also states you must have a means of securing the liner to the shell that must be inherently flame resistant, coats are required to have wristlets, a drag rescue device (DRD) must be accessible from the exterior with a gloved hand, and you much have a Thermal Protective Performance (TPP) minimum of 35 and a Total Heat Loss (THL) minimum of 205. However, it does not go into detail on what your bunker gear should be made of. That part is up to the manufacturers.

Let’s begin with the basics. The NFPA requires your gear to have a TPP minimum of 35, maximum of 50. The NFPA also requires your bunker gear to have a THL minimum of 205, no maximum. Your TPP is going to protect you from the outside heat, where the THL is going to protect you from your own inside heat. TPP (divided in half) measures the time a firefighter has to escape from flashover conditions. For example, if you have a TPP of 50, you would theoretically have 25 seconds to escape flashover conditions. THL measures the ability of the garment to let heat escape. You cannot max out both numbers. The best way to configure your bunker gear is to have a happy medium of both.

Dr. Graham Peaslee, professor of physics at the University of Notre Dame, has tested various types of bunker gear. His research is highlighting the amount of Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in our turnout gear. Two common types of PFAS that you may have heard of include Perfluorohexane Sulfonic Acid (PFHxS) and Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS) found in Aqueous Film Forming Foams (AFFF). PFAS is a class of man-made chemicals found in flame-resistant and water-resistant items, including AFFF and turnout gear. Conveniently enough, your bunker gear is flame resistant and water resistant. When PFAS chemicals break down, some of them can create PFOA and PFOS. These particular PFAS have been linked to thyroid disease, hypertension, immunosuppression, kidney cancer, and testicular cancer (2020, ATSDR). PFAS as a class are known as the “forever chemicals.” Once they get into the environment, they build up and never leave. They can also accumulate in your body, and although they will eventually leave, it will typically take months to years to do so. It’s so bad that, in fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a lifetime health advisory on the levels of PFOA and PFOS in our drinking water. European firefighters have known about the issue of PFOA in bunker gear and have set a 0.1 microgram/dm2 limit on textiles in general. By July 2020, Europeans will have phased PFAS-containing foam out completely. The U.S. military is required to replace this foam from their trucks by 2022 and treats it as a hazardous material (2018, Station Pride).

In May 2017, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) released a statement claiming that there was no need to be concerned about PFOA in bunker gear because it had been phased out of bunker gear manufacturing since 2013 (2017, IAFF). No studies were released along with the IAFF’s statement. However, Dr. Peaslee’s findings were released in February 2018. Many “experts” and bunker gear manufacturers have refuted the claims and even called them false claims, saying that there has been no use of PFOA in turnout gear. There are some sources that say it’s the fireground, not the turnout gear. Despite the many articles saying there are no toxic chemicals on our bunker gear, there are no facts or research supporting those claims. The only published proof is Dr. Peaslee’s work, showing the presence of these chemicals on bunker gear. Diane Cotter, wife of a former Massachusetts firefighter, had spearheaded the campaign for more research and testing of our bunker gear. Push for more research came after her husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Today her husband lives cancer free, but Mrs. Cotter presses on for the testing of PFOA in bunker gear. 

Many attempts at reaching out to manufacturers themselves have not proved to be fruitful. No bunker gear manufacturing company wants to release the chemical composition of its bunker gear. Bunker gear manufacturers aware of the harmful PFOA claim they have switched to newer “safer” chemical compounds; however, the newer/safer compounds are still a form of PFAS. Some of these chemicals come from other PFAS in the gear that turn into PFOA with exposure and wear. Still others release certain PFAS for which the toxicity in humans is unknown.

How do we go about fixing this? Well, first it is important to say that in a fire situation it is important to wear your PPE. It keeps you safe in a fire. However, I have a few ideas of things you can do and some things you shouldn’t do that will keep your safer in your gear:

  1.   Don’t work out in your bunker gear. Working out causes your pores to open up and accept the unnecessary risk of letting these chemicals into your body. While preparing yourself for the intensity of what you may come across during a fire, I see no reason why anyone should put on bunker gear for physical fitness–especially not until we have all the facts about what exactly is put into and/or on our bunker gear. You are putting yourself at an unnecessary risk of exposure to PFAS by doing so. 
  2. Clean Cabs.  There are departments working toward the initiative of cleaner cabs. This is important. Keeping your bunker gear in the cab of your truck, you are unnecessarily exposing yourself to not only the harmful chemicals on your gear but carcinogens from previous fires. We need to strongly consider the risk vs. reward aspect of keeping your bunker gear in the truck under the small chance that you might get a fire.
  3. Don’t allow children to touch your bunker gear. If your station does frequent tours and children walk through the truck or touch your gear, you are exposing children to these harmful chemicals as well as anything else that may be on your bunker gear. If you cook dinner for your crew, groceries may come in contact with the back of the truck, another unnecessary exposure. These exposures are affecting not just you but other people around you.
  4. Don’t take newborn/marriage/family photos with your gear. New parents sometimes like to have professional pictures done with their babies in or on their bunker gear. This is now something that seems more horrifying to me than cute. 
  5. Handle your bunker gear with gloves whenever possible. You respect the fires and what carcinogens you may come in contact with when you fight fire. Why not treat your gear with the same respect and glove up before taking it apart, putting it together, or handling it for inspection?

I could go on about the risk of PFAS in our bunker gear and class B foams. Diane Cotter and Dr. Peaslee have done extensive research and are continuing to push nationally for the research and funding required to test bunker gear. As firefighters, we are required to take measures to protect ourselves from cancer. New cancer legislation requires current firefighters to be nonsmokers. Fire academies are requiring new students to be tobacco-free for one to two years prior to enrollment in fire school. We, as firefighters, understand the risks we are taking when we sign up for the job. We are taking measures to prevent cancer because we want to live long, healthy lives after we retire. Shouldn’t we require the manufacturers to provide us with a list of chemicals that goes into the manufacturing of our bunker gear? This way, we can make a smarter, more informed decision about what gear we are choosing. We don’t need bunker gear that withstands hotter temperatures; we need smarter firefighters! Humans haven’t evolved to the point of survival that if they are trapped in a fire, we will be able to save them by having bunker gear that withstands hotter temperatures. 


May 2017 (IAFF) PFOA and Turnout Gear

February 18, 2018 (Cotter, D.) Fire Gear Laboratory Test Results

January 21, 2020 (Agency For Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) and Your Health

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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