Read the full article by Andrew Wallender and Fatima Hussein (Bloomberg Law)
“Firefighter Paul Cotter faced all manner of risks in his 28 years on the job—collapsing buildings, smoke inhalation, heat exhaustion, mental stress. But there was one threat he never considered: the protective garments he wore when responding to calls.
Firefighters’ ‘bunker gear’ contains significant amounts of chemicals known as PFAS, so-called ‘forever chemicals’ that are linked a host of health problems, including prostate cancer—which Cotter battled.
‘No one had ever heard of it before,’ Cotter said of PFAS in gear.
Recent lawsuits and legislation have focused primarily on the alleged health risks presented by fire-suppressing foams, some of which also contain PFAS. But now, plaintiffs’ attorneys and lawmakers are increasingly looking at the gear worn by firefighters.
Elizabeth Pritzker of Pritzker Levine LLP is one of those attorneys. She’s representing two dozen firefighters in a California district court case against foam makers and manufacturers of personal protective gear worn by firefighters, including 3M Co., W.L. Gore & Associates, and Johnson Controls Inc.
The plaintiffs were all diagnosed with cancers—nine with prostate cancer like Cotter—and had PFAS in their blood well above national averages, which Pritzker called ‘a substantial causational link.’
‘We think it’s going to bring about change in the industry, and ideally give them compensation for their injuries,’ she said of her lawsuit.
The companies have all denied wrongdoing. A spokesperson for 3M said that 3M Scott Fire & Safety ‘uses limited quantities of certain fluoropolymers in components of firefighter protective equipment.’
‘3M’s products have been tested and assessed to help assure their safety for their intended uses,’ spokesperson Sean Lynch said.
Firefighters and Cancer
PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of human-made chemicals that first hit the market as coatings for Teflon pans in the 1950s, and are now found in products like microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, carpets, and cosmetics.
PFAS include thousands of compounds, including PFOA, PFOS, and GenX. They are known for their stability and water and heat resistance, thus making them ideal for firefighter gear.
But they are also linked to increased cholesterol levels, changes in liver enzymes, lower infant birth weights, and increases in the risk of kidney or testicular cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It was that link to cancer that led Massachusetts resident Diane Cotter, Paul’s wife, to ask University of Notre Dame professor and nuclear physicist Graham Peaslee to investigate the gear. The resulting study found firefighter textiles had ‘high levels of total fluorine,’ a critical component of PFAS.
Students collecting garment samples for Peaslee had such alarming levels of potentially toxic fluorochemicals on their hands after handling the gear, they were required to wear gloves and take protective measures.
There’s no question there’s PFAS in the gear, Peaslee said. Now it’s a question of whether it’s getting into firefighters’ bodies and accumulating there…”