Firefighters are exposed to PFAS, cancer from gear meant to protect them

PFAS in firefighting gear

Already at a high risk for cancer, firefighters are exposed to PFAS because of their turnout gear.

Firefighters are known for saving lives while risking their own.

“We think about burns, we think about roof collapse, and we think about floor collapse. Those are all very real risks,” said Duluth Firefighter Anders Hultstrom. “What you don’t think about is cancer.”

According to the World Health Organization, the occupation is carcinogenic to humans, on par with tobacco and benzene.

“It’s scary. It’s something I talk with my wife about and you know about that, that there’s a likelihood my older brother, the one who got me interested in firefighting, is fighting cancer right now,” said DFD Assistant Chief Pete Johnson. “We’ve had a number of firefighters who have been fighting, who have fought cancer.”

Compared to the general population, firefighters have a significantly higher risk of getting testicular cancer, mesothelioma, lymphoma, or several other types of cancer.

“Firefighters are inherently more susceptible to getting cancer just based on the nature of the occupation because of fires. Fire produces carcinogens no matter what it’s burning,” said DFD Deputy Fire Marshal Chris Orman. “But what we didn’t know and didn’t realize and are learning more and more over the last several years and more recently are the PFAS issues that we are more susceptible to, and we are more exposed to these chemicals than we have ever really realized.”

PFAS have been linked to a variety of health issues, including cancers. 

“PFAS are an insidious class of chemicals. The Stockholm Conventions determined that they’re bio accumulative, persistent and transboundary,” said Neil McMillan, Director of Science and Research at the International Association of Firefighters. “Internally, the half-life within humans, it can be quite long as compared to other exposures firefighters face. These chemicals are not only carcinogens and toxins, but also endocrine disrupting chemicals.” 

Firefighters are exposed to these forever chemicals by wearing the gear that is meant to protect them on the job. 

“When I first started, if you had clean turn gear, it meant you weren’t a hard worker. You know, the firefighters with the dirtiest gear, they were the ones who were in the fire the longest. They were the ones that were doing the dirtiest work and getting all that soot and everything on their gear, and they wore it with pride,” said Johnson. “So you would go weeks or months without washing your gear, and what we learned is that is a continuous exposure over time of those carcinogens as they off gas off that gear.”

According to McMillan, firefighter turnout gear is “the most heavily fluorinated consumer product” worn as a garment by weight. 

“We have studies that show that that peak shed from our turnout gear over time is deposited in our fire stations and brought home with us,” said McMillan. “It is an absolute threat, risk and concern for firefighters.”

As more has been learned about this increased risk, progress has been made. 

“Something we negotiated into our contract or collective bargaining agreement was getting two sets of turnout gear for every firefighter in the city, as well as washers, specialized gear washers in every fire station so that once we go to a fire, we can take off that dirty gear, we can get it back to the station,” Johnson explained. “We can put clean gear on the rigs and be ready to respond and then have the capability to wash those carcinogens out of our gear as best we can.”

The International Association of Firefighters believes more can and should be done to reduce the risk of PFAS exposure from gear. 

“We have engaged law firms to assist us in ensuring that we’re moving forward and protecting firefighters as best we can,” McMillan explained. “The standard that dictates what sort of gear can be certified has resisted advancements in safer alternatives from being implemented.”

Duluth Firefighters Local 101 union will be hosting public showings of “Burned” at the Zeitgeist this week. The half-hour documentary is about PFAS in turnout gear, which the firefighters hope will spread public awareness. 

“I think that even the public understands that firefighters are exposed. We are getting cancer at a higher rate than everybody else,” said Orman. “But the level and why we’re getting the cancer needs to be brought to light so that we get more support and hopefully we get more traction in the fact that more people are willing to work on it to protect us as we protect them.”

The showings will be on June 27, 28, and 29. Doors open at six, and showings begin at 6:45 pm. Admission is free, but seating is limited to the first 96 people each night.