By Sean Mitchell
Sometime in 2017 I was at work and trying to decipher a message sent to the Nantucket (MA) Fire Department Facebook page. Our messages are typically requests for patches or T-shirts, but this one was different. This message was sent by Diane Cotter and it referenced a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) that was, according to Diane, contaminating our turnout gear. On her Web site, yourturnoutgearandpfoa.com, Diane was posting information and trying to raise awareness of the PFOA issue. Our department made some inquiries and, luckily, we were relieved to learn that our current gear was in fact safe. According to the textile and personal protective equipment (PPE) manufacturers, they had “not used that chemical in years.” We continued doing business as usual. Our turnout gear hung all along the wall of the apparatus floor, we threw it in our vehicles when we had to, and we wore it into the schools for fire and life safety education, crawling low on the floors and giving high fives to the kids.
While per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are persistent, they are no match for Diane Cotter. We had accepted those industry answers as truth, but Diane kept fighting. I continued to follow her on social media and figured that her fight with the gear industry must have been with the manufacturers who used this chemical in legacy gear, back when her husband Paul was first on the job. Time went on and a few months later we installed our first gear extractor. We were finally able to clean our gear the right way. We could now wear clean and “safe” gear while we shoveled snow, stopped for groceries and coffee, and on emergency and non-emergency calls. In the schools and during station visits the students loved to watch us don our gear and learn that firefighters are their community helpers, there to keep them safe. We told every one of them how our gear might look intimidating, but we had to wear it to protect ourselves. My gear had been through the extractor, so why not let the kids see what it feels like and gather in for pictures?
In the Fall of 2019, I heard some devastating news. My good friend and fellow firefighter, 38-year-old Captain Nate Barber, was diagnosed with testicular cancer and would be leaving the island immediately for further care in Boston. The cancer crisis, which had been running rampant throughout the fire service, had officially hit home. Having cancer and living on an island meant that Nate would have to leave his wife and two young boys to travel back and forth to Boston for every appointment, sometimes spending entire weeks away. This meant hours and hours of ferry rides followed by long hours in the car. All of this because his job made him sick.
By January 2020, Nate was back in town between medical appointments and able to attend a meeting where five members of our union sat down to discuss upcoming collective bargaining topics, as our contract was due to expire in July. We talked about the usual contract issues and then the conversation turned to our turnout gear. Some of our firefighters only have one set, so even though we had recently moved into a brand new station with a separate gear storage room and a decontamination room with an extractor and dryer, some members would not be able to wash their used gear until the end of their shift, if at all. We also spoke about exposure to AFFF and how the same chemical may have been in some of our older gear. After some quick research it appeared that certain turnout gear manufactured prior to 2016 “may have contained trace amounts of PFOA.” Considering that meant any gear that was just four years old likely contained known carcinogens, Nate proposed that we ask for all that gear to be replaced. He worked on a letter to notify the town of a potential safety issue, and we decided to pass it across the table at our next negotiation session.
That next meeting began with a heartfelt introduction from Nate, where he spoke about the risks we face as firefighters. He talked about his fears and those of his family and fellow firefighters. He spoke about how we were aware of the many exposure risks when we took the job, but that the gear issue was a new one that we had only learned of recently. We told them about studies that have shown a link between PFOA and many illnesses, particularly the type of cancer Nate was fighting. After Nate spoke, we put forward our request for the replacement of all turnout gear that was manufactured prior to 2016. Anyone wearing newer gear was considered lucky to no longer have to worry about PFOA, since we had documents proving that the newer textiles were considered safe. All the information we used to support our request came from links on Diane’s site and the letters we were given from multiple textile companies assuring us that those chemicals had been phased out. At the time, even after hours and hours of research into the PFOA issue, we did not know enough to see through the deceptive language used in these letters. For example: They said it was safe, but it was never made clear what “safe” meant. Who did the studies and what were the results? What exactly is a trace amount of a forever chemical and how is it measured? And why weren’t we given a choice to purchase and wear gear without persistent chemicals that would get us sick?
At the negotiation table we provided fact sheets from the Firefighter Cancer Support Network which explained the prevalence of cancer in the fire service. We also brought those letters from the industry which vaguely admitted that the older gear contained PFOA. Those letters stated that the levels were safe, but we argued that our lives were not worth the risk. As the meeting came to a close it was difficult to gauge where we stood. We were prepared to take our request to the floor of the upcoming town meeting if we were not successful, but we soon learned that the town administration accepted our proposal and would fund the request for new “safe” turnout gear. Now we had to find out where to get it.
I dug deeper and deeper into the documents and online searches. I reached out to Diane Cotter to let her know what we were up to. She responded immediately and told me to keep an eye out for the upcoming paper from Dr. Graham Peaslee of The University of Notre Dame. His
study had been peer reviewed and would be published in the next few weeks. During this time, I learned more and more about PFOA, PFAS, C6, C8, and the like. It became clear that the letters we received from the industry were not quite what they seemed. When I read Dr. Peaslee’s study, I learned that every single set of gear he tested, whether new or old, used or unused, was heavily fluorinated. Not only that, he stated that the fluorine sheds from the outer shell and is continually exposing the wearers and those around them to these chemicals, via inhalation and ingestion. Dermal absorption studies are now underway, but do we really need to wait for those results before demanding alternatives?
A few months went by and Nate was back at work after successful surgery and treatment in Boston. He was wearing brand new turnout gear manufactured just a few months prior. When he made the decision to return to work, he was originally under the impression he would be wearing new “safer” gear that did not contain the chemical linked to his cancer. Thanks to Dr. Peaslee’s study and our research into PFAS, he now had proof that he was not.
We are a relatively small combination fire department with about 30 full-time members and a handful of call-firefighters. Turnout gear is expensive, and we now wanted to replace it all. I again turned to Diane for help and she introduced me to a gear specialist named Jeff Knobbe who told me about a new PFAS-free outer shell. We are exploring that option, but we will not blindly accept the vague language we have in the past. If it turns out to be what they claim, we will have the funding to make the purchase. We are thankful that our local officials trusted our research and it helped that they were already aware that PFAS is an unnecessary risk that should be mitigated as swiftly as possible. Unfortunately, the gear manufacturing industry is still lagging behind. This new outer shell must be thoroughly vetted and independently proven safe. The chemical industry may continue to claim that they “do not believe their product poses a health risk to firefighters,” but where is the proof? It is time that we demand the industry change their ways and remove all PFAS chemicals from all turnout gear. Even if we can purchase brand new gear with PFAS-free outer shells, currently we still have no option but to accept a moisture barrier made with Teflon. There is no available alternative. The fire service needs to decide if that is acceptable. I urge everyone to watch “The Devil We Know” and “Dark Waters” before deciding for yourselves if you think these chemicals are safe or necessary. Think of your brother and sister firefighters who have left us too early due to occupational cancer, those who are battling it now, and the generations to come.
Firefighting is inherently dangerous and that will never change. What can change is how we react to these unnecessary risks. If not for the work of the Cotters, Dr. Graham Peaslee, Attorney Rob Bilott, Jeff Knobbe, and others, we would have no knowledge of the fact that we are wearing this toxic chemical every day. It is a forever chemical that undoubtedly leads to cancer and other serious illnesses. It cannot be completely removed from the fabric, and even if it could, it would only transfer the contamination elsewhere; into the wastewater, into our blood, and into every building and person we encounter.
This leads to another question: how do we dispose of our contaminated PPE? If taken to a landfill it will only break down and contaminate the groundwater, so your community may very well end up drinking it. Sending it to South America or elsewhere will only send the contamination along with it. Will your department be liable for that contamination? Does the PPE industry have any solutions for this problem? Some say it should be treated as a hazardous material, picked up by licensed contractors, and properly disposed of. The same coat and pants you are wearing today, while you give kindergartners high fives and respond to the homes of the elderly, is so toxic that it will eventually have to be taken away by people in hazmat suits. How is this an acceptable risk?
There is legislation proposed in Massachusetts which would require any manufacturer who sells firefighting PPE to provide written notice that the equipment contains PFAS chemicals, and to document the reasons that those PFAS chemicals are present. If passed, this would mirror laws already on the books in New York, Colorado, and Washington. That means that if a fire department in those three states purchases turnout gear today, they will be made aware that it contains PFAS, while every other department in every other state might continue to be unaware. Those other departments will be told that the gear “is not made with PFOA” (without mention of what C6 is) and there may be “trace amounts” (without scientific evidence) that are deemed to be “safe to the firefighter” (without studies to support the claim). I do not pretend to know where the lies begin, but I know where they end–needlessly contaminating our blood. It is time to demand an alternative.
This is a complicated matter which takes an immense amount of research and investigation to discover the entire story. Nate’s wife Ayesha and I have spent many hours searching for and emailing as much information as we can find, and we have barely scratched the surface. As recently as March 2020, in an e-mail from a major manufacturer, I was told that they “stopped using those compounds in their production many years ago.” Just this week I was told by a textile company that the moisture barrier’s “current Teflon finish is safe.” Three years ago, that would have been good enough, but today it is not. So much is now known about the devastating effects of Teflon through the tireless work of Attorney Rob Bilott it is impossible to assume that any trace amount of that forever chemical should be physically worn or handled by anyone.
What are these chemicals and why are they the only option? When will we have alternatives? How do we know that C6 is a safe alternative to C8? Where is the proof that these textiles are harmless to the firefighter? I urge every firefighter reading this to call your distributor, call the manufacturers and textile companies, and ask these questions. Present your findings to your chiefs and local union representatives and demand change from the industry. Put pressure on them by writing to your local elected officials and urge them to support similar legislation to what is already accepted elsewhere. Explain this issue using all the documents, evidence, and studies which prove this health and safety issue is real and must be corrected immediately. If that does not work, I am sure your community organizations, neighborhood committees, and environmental groups will be interested in this relatively unknown source of contamination.
We used these tactics to effect change within our department and we believe they can be used similarly in every community. We owe it to ourselves, our families, and the countless firefighters we have already lost.
Sean Mitchell is secretary/treasurer of the Nantucket Fire Fighters Local 2509.