Known and Unknown

Bobby Halton
Bobby Halton

The other morning while drinking our coffee, one of the firefighters mentioned that he felt he picked up a ton of insight during those morning coffees. We all nodded our heads in agreement as he walked away. One of the more senior members leaned over as he got up and said, “Just too damn bad we can’t remember what those insights were once we leave the table.” That gave us all a good chuckle but, in some ways, it made us think that maybe we should pay a little more attention to the insights we pick up during our morning coffees.

There is a great deal of coffee talk around the issue of firefighter health and wellness as it relates to exposure to fluorinated chemicals. This is not an easy subject for us to wrap our heads around. Most of us aren’t physicists or chemists; we are firefighters. A great deal of research and science has been dedicated to trying to understand what the impact of these fluorinated chemicals is on living things such as firefighters. The government has already identified sites where use of aqueous film forming foam containing these fluorinated chemicals has created contamination issues with the groundwater. We have been directed to no longer use those foams. A feature-length film has been done about the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) water issue called “Dark Waters”; it is well worth watching.

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This is not an editorial about chemistry. I’m not a chemist, so I’ve liberally taken from folks who are chemists the following definitions to show exactly what it is we are talking about: “Fluoropolymers are a group of polymers within the class of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) …. Production of some fluoropolymers is intimately linked to the use and emissions of legacy and novel PFAS as polymer processing aids. There are serious concerns regarding the toxicity and adverse effects of fluorinated processing aids on humans and the environment. A variety of other PFAS, including monomers and oligomers, are emitted during the production, processing, use, and end-of-life treatment of fluoropolymers. There are further concerns regarding the safe disposal of fluoropolymers and their associated products and articles at the end of their life cycle. 

“Legacy processing aids (i.e., PFOA, PFNA) used to manufacture fluoropolymers are linked to a wide range of health effects in experimental animal models (causative) and humans (associative), including certain types of cancer, immunotoxicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity, liver toxicity, and thyroid disease. The production of many fluoropolymers still requires the use of PFAS as surfactants or as monomers, which causes releases to the environment during manufacture, and thus may pose a risk to human health and the environment.” The chemists call these materials “forever chemicals”—that means they are almost impossible to destroy.

Very recently, the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology published a paper about finding these forever chemicals in the dust in fire stations in Boston. The study was led Anna Young of Harvard, who is quoted as saying in relation to firefighters’ bunker gear: “It is concerning that PFAS appears to be added to and contaminating the gear meant to protect them. We know these chemicals bioaccumulate and are harmful to our health.” My friend Jon Marr, who has been following this issue, wrote a great piece on the study. Another great friend, Dr. Graham Peaslee of Notre Dame, who has been investigating this issue and who has spoken on it and will speak on it again at FDIC International, also recently published his findings in Environmental Science and Technology Letters as to how much PFAS forever chemicals are present in our bunker gear.

Donald Rumsfeld, the former 13th and 21st Secretary of Defense, was once quoted as saying, “Reports that say something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me because, as we know, there are known knowns: there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns: that is to say we know there are some things [we know] we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Nassim Taleb is fond of saying, “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.”

So, what do we take away from the kitchen table from all of this? First, we know this is a real issue and we should not ignore it. We know this stuff is in much of our gear. We also know that it appears to shed from our gear and collect in the dust and other common debris on the floor and elsewhere. We know that it has adverse health effects. We don’t know exactly what those effects are. Given all of this, I think we should keep our gear packaged in our gear bags until we are going to use it at a fire. We should not wear our gear on any calls except fires. We should keep our structural gear packaged dry and clean whenever possible. We should do this individually; we do not need rules and regulations, orders and directives—common sense should prevail.

We should not work out, stair climb, or do emergency medical calls in our gear, given the “known and unknown” health risks. Also, why can’t we get practice gear, which is not for firefighting but strictly for training—gear designed specifically to wear like gear and feel like gear but for training? It could be more durable, built for repeated heavy use. When we do live fire, then we use the structural firefighting gear. Structural gear is expensive and prone to degradation from sunlight and use. Practice gear, non-PFAS gear, cheaper gear, should be a thought for training purposes.

We don’t know what we don’t know about PFAS, but we know enough. Keep your gear clean packaged, and use it when your life is on the line. We should demand that all gear come labeled with all the chemicals and products that are known to be in the gear. Enjoy the coffee; share the insights.

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