Firefighters Battle an Unseen Hazard: Their Gear Could Be Toxic - The New York Times
Every day at work for 15 years, Sean Mitchell, a captain in the Nantucket Fire Department, has put on the bulky suit that protects him from the heat and flames he faces on the job. But last year, he and his team came across unsettling research: Toxic chemicals on the very equipment meant to protect their lives could instead be making them gravely ill.
This week, Captain Mitchell and other members of the International Association of Fire Fighters, the nation’s largest firefighters’ union, are demanding that union officials take action. They want independent tests of PFAS, the chemicals in their gear, and for the union to rid itself of sponsorships from equipment makers and the chemical industry. In the next few days, delegates representing the union’s more than 300,000 members are expected to vote on the measure — a first.
DuPont said it was “disappointed” with firefighters seeking to ban sponsorships and that its commitment to the profession was “unwavering.” 3M said it had “acted responsibility” on PFAS and remained committed to working with the union. Chemours declined to comment.
The risks of chemicals in firefighting equipment may seem to pale in comparison to the deadly flames, smoke-filled buildings or forest infernos that firefighters brave on the job. But over the past three decades, cancer has emerged as the leading cause of death for firefighters across the country, making up 75 percent of active-duty firefighter deaths in 2019.
Studies undertaken by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have found that firefighters have a 9 percent higher risk of getting cancer and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from the disease than the general United States population. Firefighters are most at risk for testicular cancer, mesothelioma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and rates haven’t declined, health experts point out, even though firefighters in the United States now use air packs similar to scuba gear to protect themselves from a fire’s toxic fumes.
The Biden administration has said it would make PFAS a priority. In campaign documents, President Biden pledged to designate PFAS as a hazardous substance to make manufacturers and other polluters pay for cleanup, and set a national drinking water standard for the chemical. New York, Maine and Washington have moved to ban PFAS from food packaging, and other bans are in the works.
“There’s a need to drive PFAS out of everyday products, like food and cosmetics, textiles, carpets,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit group that works on environmental health. “Firefighters are disproportionately exposed, on top of all that.”
Captain Mitchell, meanwhile, is pressing the union to refuse future sponsorships from chemicals and equipment manufacturers, money he feels has slowed action on the issue. In 2018, the union received about $200,000 from companies including the fabrics manufacturer W.L. Gore and equipment maker MSA Safety, records show.
W.L. Gore said it remained confident in the safety of its products. MSA Safety did not respond to a request for comment.
Another obstacle is that manufacturers hold prominent positions at the body that oversees standards for firefighting gear, the National Fire Protection Association. Half the members of a committee that oversees protective-clothing and equipment standards, for example, are from industry. A spokeswoman for the group said the committees represented a “balanced variety of interests, including the fire service.”