MA Firefighter Says Toxic Chemicals in Gear May Cause Cancer

Dan Medeiros

The Herald News, Fall River, Mass.

(MCT)

Dec. 2—FALL RIVER — Firefighter Jason Burns remembers when his daughters were first born, dressing them in his safety equipment. Firefighting is in his blood. Seeing his girls wear his gear was a way for him to illustrate that his family is a firefighting family.

“I wrapped my daughter up in this gear. Every young firefighter does,” he says. “And it’s corny, but it’s like a rite of passage.”

The thought fills him with horror now. He’d never do such a thing again — in fact, he devotes much of his free time convincing other firefighters to stay out of their turnout gear whenever it’s not needed.

Firefighting gear is made with and highly saturated with chemicals called PFAS — or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Those chemicals in the fibers of the gear can rub off and be absorbed through skin contact or be accidentally ingested. The chemicals can also break down in the presence of high heat, off-gas, and be breathed in. And certain PFAS compounds are linked to a number of serious and potentially fatal health consequences, including cancer.

APS Radio/YouTube

Burns says inside a burning building, his turnout gear keeps him safe, and dozens of firefighters across Fall River safe, and millions of other firefighters nationwide safe. Outside of a burning building, he says, the gear is itself unsafe.

“I’m supposed to handle my personal protective equipment with rubber gloves,” Burns says. “Think about that for a second. A PPE specialist said we should be handling our gear with rubber gloves. Isn’t that a problem?”

Burns says he nearly broke down in tears when he remembered dressing up his daughter in it for fun.

“That’s horrible to me,” he says. “That hit me in that moment: ‘How many times did I do that?’ I do have five kids, so I’ve done it a few times.”

PFAS are a broad class of chemicals encompassing more than 9,000 known compounds, and are most useful for making products stain-resistant, grease-repellent and water-repellent. Teflon is the likely the most well-known PFAS chemical, first invented in 1938 and made famous as the slippery coating on non-stick frying pans. Polytetrafluoroethylene, the chemical name for Teflon, is also used in hundreds of other products, like tape, lubricants, fabrics, medical devices and much more.

PFAS are, for the most part, manufactured by chemical companies 3M, DuPont and Chemours — and they’re in nearly everything, touching nearly every industry. Too many consumer products to count have PFAS in them, particularly products that have stain- or water-resistance. The slick, waxy papers used to package fast food, or wrap candy, are made with PFAS. So is a stain-resistant rug or waterproof sneakers. So is waterproof mascara, sweatproof makeup, and many varieties of lipstick. So are implantable medical devices, like stent grafts used in heart surgery, or meshes used to repair hernias.

What makes PFAS dangerous, people like Burns say, is that rigorous scientific studies show some of these compounds have been linked to several serious medical conditions, among them thyroid disease, high cholesterol levels, ulcerative colitis, and several different kinds of cancer — cancers of the liver, breasts, prostate, testicles, and kidneys being most common.

PFAS tend to add some durability to products — and they’re incredibly durable themselves. The chemical compounds don’t biodegrade naturally. Instead, they remain in the environment, and the human body, accumulating as there’s more and more exposure.

“They call it the forever chemical,” Burns says. “They don’t go away, ever.”

As the products made with PFAS degrade, the PFAS chemicals themselves linger. Microparticles become airborne, or enter through the pores of your skin or are ingested, or end up in the ground and wind up in drinking water — sometimes on purpose, as in the case of 3M, which has been subjected to multimillion-dollar lawsuits after dumped PFAS chemicals have ended up in water supplies in multiple states.

Industry officials and environmental regulators have said the amounts of PFAS that people are exposed to through consumer products tends to be tiny — not enough to be toxic. They tout the benefits that these chemical treatments impart on consumer products. And they note that certain PFAS chemicals legally proven to be toxic have been taken off the market, replaced by different PFAS compounds. However, people like Burns note that not enough is known about similar compounds — and that PFAS chemical manufacturers knew some chemical compounds were toxic for decades before finally taking them off the market.

“They’ve known these chemicals cause cancer since the ’60s,” Burns says. “The industry actually fought to make sure there’s not even a warning label on my coat. It’s remarkable. It’s infuriating.”

Even if some products that use PFAS contain only small amounts, anti-PFAS activists say, people accumulate PFAS in their systems from multiple different sources, since the chemicals are in such wide use. They also note that there’s not enough peer-reviewed scientific research to show that alternative PFAS chemicals in use now are any safer.

“Their background attorneys, their legal team, were the same company defending the tobacco industry,” Burns says. “They had science saying that cigarettes were not addictive. … Now we know better. These same attorneys and legal groups are now coming up with junk science, made-up science, saying that this stuff is in such little amounts, that it’s not bad, all these wonderful things. … But we start using independent scientists, and they’re like ‘Quite frankly, that’s BS.’

“This chemical is linked to cancer, proven in a court of law. It’s killing people,” Burns says. “That’s enough for me.”

Burns has been a firefighter in Fall River for 15 years. He spent part of that time as the president of their union, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1314, advocating for safer and better working conditions for his guild. When he was in that position, he helped obtain washing machines and dryers for fire stations, to keep their gear clean — a far cry from decades past, when firefighters took pride in having dirty gear as a mark of bravery.

Now, he says, it’s the gear itself that’s the problem.

“In the gear, [PFAS] started to be used in 1976 — and there’s value to what the product does,” Burns says. “It’s water-repellent. So I can’t have a soaked jacket and go back into a 500-degree room because I’m going to get steam burns, and it’s going to be awful. So thank God I have a product like that.

“I would just rather use a product that is not giving me cancer,” he says.

Cancer is a part of the firefighter’s world, and has been for a long time. Firefighters have a 9% higher rate of cancer than the general population, and a 14% higher risk of dying from it. According to the IAFF, from 2002 to 2019, two out of every three firefighters who died in the line of duty died of occupational cancer.

“My grandfather was on the job for 38 years,” Burns says. “He died at 75 — cancer.”

As Burns spent time on the job, he started noticing that younger and younger men were getting sick and dying. These weren’t grizzled firefighters who had spent decades breathing in smoke and never cleaning the soot off their helmets. These were young guys.

“In 2013, we lost Paul Chippendale. He was 37,” Burns says. He grew up with Chippendale, a year behind him in high school, grew up a block away from Chippendale’s wife. They had kids the same age.

“In 2015, we lost Adam Franco. He was 32,” Burns says. “And something just clicked. This is different. This isn’t the same cancer.”

Burns says he first became aware that PFAS chemicals were used to make his firefighting gear in 2017. But not through official channels.

“Not from my union, not from gear companies, not from the chemical industry,” he says.

Burns met Diane Cotter, the wife of retired fire Lt. Paul Cotter, a firefighter in Worcester who was diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer in 2014. He was 55, and he was treated but it ended his career. Burns became fascinated and disturbed by the idea that firefighters’ own gear could be hazardous.

“She was pleading on social media for anyone to hear her out,” Burns says.

There are three layers to firefighter turnout gear: an outer shell, a moisture barrier, and a thermal barrier. All of them are made with PFAS, saturated in the cloth fibers.

“We work with Dr. Graham Peaslee out of Notre Dame. He’s a PFAS expert, and he said it’s the most highly fluorinated textile he’s ever seen,” Burns says. “We’ve learned through his testing and different science and data, the fibers and those chemicals are shedding really quickly.”

As a firefighter enters a hot environment, his pores open. The chemicals shedding off his gear are absorbed into his skin. When he leaves the hot environment, his pores close up again.

“All those chemicals, all that nastiness, is now trapped in my body forever,” Burns says. “So we have extraordinarily high PFAS levels.”

Companies that make turnout gear note that certain PFAS chemicals known to be harmful were phased out last decade, replaced by what they describe as safer chemical treatments. But given the lack of independently verified testing, and the history — and the often cozy relationship between companies that produce PFAS, turnout gear, and the National Fire Protection Association — people like Burns don’t have a lot of trust.

Only one company makes turnout gear that’s been independently verified as PFAS-free, and just the outer shell. The other layers, closer to the skin, are still made with PFAS-saturated fibers.

Firefighting foam also contains PFAS, and has been the focus of prominent legislative efforts to ban it and use PFAS-free foams, since their use can leech into soil and contaminate groundwater. The foam, known as AFFF, is used to suppress certain kinds of fires. In Fall River, Burns says, there isn’t much call for it, but other departments use it more frequently. He says MassPort Fire Rescue trains with it, to put out jet fuel fires, and has called him for guidance on how to replace it. He says he’s recently spoken to men who served in the military overseas and trained to use AFFF.

“They were almost playing in this foam, because it looks like Palmolive soapy water,” he says. “It’s just seeping into your pores, staying there, and these guys were all getting cancer.”

He isn’t necessarily worried about exposure to AFFF for himself or his fellow firefighters in the city, since its use is rare. He’s worried more about the gear they wear, the jackets and pants they’re supposed to be touching with rubber gloves.

“I’ve probably used foam on a fire a dozen times,” he says. “Every day that I work, I’m wearing my gear. So you want to talk about exposure level, it’s from my gear, not from the 12 times I’ve played with foam.”

Burns has spent the past several years diving deep into research on the subject. He’s spending much of his time attending seminars and meetings, learning all he can about PFAS, lobbying legislators and the National Fire Protection Agency for changes to turnout gear standards, and educating his fellow firefighters about the dangers that their gear can pose. Firefighters nationwide have picked up on this fight as well. What was once just one woman on social media has become a national movement.

It’s the same battle Burns has been engaged in for a while — keeping his workplace and co-workers safe — but he fights with a different level of vigor.

“You look at as many widows as I have, and fatherless children,” Burns says, “and I’ll tell you: it changes you.”

To the cynical, the battle against PFAS exposure seems destined to fail. PFAS chemicals have been used in too many products to list, for decades. Almost every single person nationwide has been exposed to PFAS and has at least some level of PFAS in their bloodstream, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry of the CDC. Toxic PFAS chemicals have been found in polar bears in the Arctic, and have been disrupting their hormone levels. The nonprofit Environmental Working Group has studies showing at least some level of PFAS is present in the water supply of most Americans, including in Fall River. The touchscreen on your phone or tablet that you may be using to read this story is made with PFAS.

But there are things that can be done, he says. Burns says there are legislative movements to ban PFAS chemicals from use, and some have succeeded. Several states have banned the use of PFAS in food packaging, and a bipartisan bill has been introduced to take that ban nationwide.

“We have two bills at the Statehouse to ban PFAS by 2023 and 2025 in firefighter gear,” Burns says, referring to Senate bill S.1576 and House bill H.2475, although he adds that they haven’t received quite enough traction.

The Toxics Use Reduction Institute also awarded a grant to the Nantucket PFAS Action Group to work with firefighters both on that island and in Fall River, to start evaluating and replacing gear made with PFAS, to study the effects of replacing gear, and educating firefighters about the issue.

The cost of replacing gear is a major hurdle. A set of turnout gear for a firefighter costs nearly $3,000, with each firefighter needing two sets — and until recently in Fall River, that cost that was the responsibility of each firefighter himself, not the city. There are 178 firefighters in Fall River, and nearly 1.2 million firefighters across the United States. Nationwide, just the cost of replacing gear alone would run into the billions of dollars — and again, only one company makes one piece of gear that’s been independently verified to be PFAS-free. Besides, Burns says, the NFPA standards require that certain pieces of turnout gear have to be made with PFAS.

Even if they could buy all PFAS-free gear, Burns wonders how wise it is to keep supporting companies that had sold gear they knew contained toxic chemicals. “Who’s going to get that [money]? The old companies that poisoned me, who now make clean stuff?” Burns says. “What they should be doing is being fined and replacing every set of gear we have.”

While the wheels of legislation and the courts turn slowly, though, fires and accidents still happen every day, and firefighters need their gear. They can’t do their job without it. Burns tells his fellow firefighters to be smart about how they use it — to only ever wear it when necessary, to keep it clean, and to wash themselves thoroughly after handling it.

“On 9/11, a local gym wanted to have firefighters go and climb stairs — 110 floors, like 9/11. ‘Do it in your gear. It’s awesome, it’s emotional, everybody sees it, it’s beautiful.’ We’re dying in that stuff,” he says. “It’s a toxic soup. We’re trying to get the guys to stay out of this stuff.

“Granted, if I have a structure fire 10 minutes now, I’m going to wear it. Absolutely. It’s required, and I need it for the job,” he says. “But only wear it when you have to.”

He says he’s only received a little pushback from some guys, wanting to work out in their gear or being skeptical of the risk, but most understand. Another firefighter had a method Burns liked, wearing a long-sleeved turtleneck under his turnout gear to minimize any contact with his skin. Burns credits local leadership for being on board with him. In the next few months, the department will be bringing aboard 17 new firefighters, and Burns and the department are working to get them all turnout gear with a PFAS-free outer shell, the only piece that’s currently proven to not be manufactured with those chemicals.

“We’re lucky here in Fall River where the chief and all the district chiefs … they allow you to make a decision in the moment,” he says. “If we have a call … in that moment, you can kind of figure out if you need to wear your structural firefighting gear, or if you can just wear your stationwear.”

Other departments don’t have that flexibility, and require turnout gear at every call. They have no choice but to suit up.

Burns loves his job, and loves to help people. Firefighting is the only job he’s ever wanted. But he’s realistic about the high level of risk firefighters face, and what might be in his future.

“I think it’s likely that I get cancer,” he says. “I don’t think it’s likely that I die from cancer. It’s very likely that I get it. … It is part of the job. The problem is, the toxic chemicals in the gear is never what I thought was part of the job. So now I’m hyper-aware of having to put my gear on. I never used to think like that.

“There’s a part of my job that I can’t control. There are parts of my job that I think I can control, and I’m trying to control that stuff.”

Dan Medeiros can be reached at dmedeiros@heraldnews.com. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Herald News today.

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