It’s time to end the use of ‘forever chemicals’ in firefighting ‘turnout gear’

What happens if life-saving equipment also poisons your body?

Ask a firefighter – it’s been happening to them for the past half-century.

That’s because “turnout gear” – the clothing made of layers that firefighters don every time they leave the station for a call – is made with the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS.

Now Congress may be poised to direct the Defense Department to phase out the use of turnout gear made with PFAS. Both the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2023, which sets policy for the DOD, would end the purchase of turnout gear made with PFAS, as long as safe alternatives are available.

Typical “turnout gear” has three layers – a thermal interior layer, a moisture barrier and an outer shell. Studies by experts at the University of Notre Dame have confirmed the presence of PFAS and found that the chemicals can migrate from the moisture barrier and outer shell layers, contaminating the thermal layer that comes into direct contact with a firefighter’s skin.

Turnout gear isn’t the only way firefighters are exposed to PFAS. They’re also exposed to firefighting foam made with the chemicals. So firefighters have higher levels of PFAS in their blood than the average American. 

PFAS are linked to various health effects, including some kinds of cancerreproductive harms and reduced effectiveness of vaccines.

Tell Congress: Stop the PFAS Contamination Crisis

We need your help to protect our water from toxic PFAS chemicals.

Congress passed legislation in 2020 requiring the military to phase out PFAS-containing firefighting foam. Less than three years later, the DOD has identified a PFAS-free foam that is also effective at putting out jet fuel fires.

That’s good news for military firefighters, and the new requirement will drive the development of safer gear.

But civilian firefighters may still need to be rescued from gear made by companies that claim to protect them.

The availability of PFAS-free gear also depends on the National Fire Protection Association, or NFPA, which sets standards for turnout gear. The NFPA is made up mostly of industry consultants and gear manufacturers. Many of its member companies have known about the risks of PFAS for decades but failed to act, and so far, the NFPA has refused to update its standards to allow for the use of PFAS-free gear.

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