Firefighters take enormous risks to protect us. Now it’s time to protect them from the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS.
All of us are exposed to PFAS through food, water and everyday products like cosmetics and clothing. But firefighters are exposed to PFAS in two other, unique ways – through the firefighting foam made with PFAS – aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF – and through firefighting clothing and gear made with PFAS.
PFAS has been linked to serious health hazards, including cancer, reproductive and developmental harms, and reduced effectiveness of vaccines, and is found in the blood of virtually every American. But studies show that firefighters tend to have even more PFAS in their blood. One reason is that the PFAS that makes their turnout gear waterproof is also leaching into the inner layers of their coats.
As Graham Peaslee, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, told The New York Times:
It’s one more risk factor, but it’s one that we can eliminate, whereas you can’t eliminate the risk of running into a burning building. And firefighters aren’t told about this. So they’re wearing it, they’re lounging in it when they’re between calls. That’s chronic exposure, and that’s not good.
The companies that make firefighting foam and gear understood these risks for decades – but failed to warn firefighters.
Shortly after PFAS manufacturers alerted federal officials that PFAS was toxic and building up in our blood, rather than seeking safer alternatives, foam companies launched a coalition to defend the use of PFAS.
Today, there are safer, equally effective alternatives to AFFF, and many states are prohibiting the use of PFAS-based foams. By law, the Department of Defense must stop using AFFF by 2024. Last year, Congress directed federal work safety experts to certify PFAS-free firefighting gear as well.
But there’s more that needs to be done to protect firefighters.
Congress should provide the resources needed to clean up hundreds of fire-training facilities where PFAS contaminates the groundwater, as Reps. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) and Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) have proposed. And the new Biden administration should finalize a rule that allows civilian airports to stop using AFFF.
Firefighters take enormous risks to keep us safe. We should do everything we can to keep them safe as well.