Read the full article by Ariel Wittenberg (E&E News)
“Firefighters are exposed to cancer-causing chemicals in the very clothing and gear that is meant to protect them, a paradox that stems from standards set under industry influence.
Cancer is already a leading killer of firefighters, yet the standards for water-resistant uniforms, known as turnout gear, call for them to contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — a highly toxic class of chemicals linked to a wide variety of health problems even at very low doses.
In fact, all turnout gear must contain the chemical substances due to a requirement that the textiles be able to withstand 40 consecutive hours of harsh ultraviolet light.
That test — proposed by a consultant who has received funding from chemical manufacturers and equipment companies that use PFAS — has been questioned ever since it was adopted by the National Fire Protection Association.
But officials at the International Association of Fire Fighters union, as well as gear manufacturers, have continued to hold up NFPA standards as proof that PFAS in firefighting gear are not only safe but necessary, even as evidence mounts that the gear is exposing firefighters to the toxic substances.
Firefighters concerned about PFAS exposure like Nantucket, Mass., Fire Capt. Sean Mitchell say they have been ‘failed by our institutions.’
‘If you had asked me three years ago who looks out for firefighters and who has our backs, I would have said the IAFF and the NFPA,” he said. “But they have not been doing that at all.’
Protective firefighting clothing has three layers: a thermal layer that sits next to the skin, a moisture barrier and an outer shell. Typically, water-resistant textiles made with PFAS are used for the moisture barrier and outer shell, though one major turnout gear brand also uses them in the thermal layer.
Textile and garment manufacturers are quick to justify use of the chemicals with the NFPA standards.
‘If firefighting gear and the NFPA 1971 performance is essential, then with the current materials available, PFAS is essential,’ one moisture barrier manufacturer told Nantucket firefighters this summer. ‘Reactionary changes, based on emotional arguments, can lead to devastating outcomes.’
Looking at the history of NFPA standards, it’s not clear that’s the case.
Gear ‘must contain PFAS’
PFAS are a family of almost 5,000 chemicals. The most well-studied compound, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), is linked to testicular and kidney cancer, as well as weakened immune systems and hormone problems.
After chemical manufacturers like DuPont and Chemours agreed to phase out PFOA by 2015, they flooded the marketplace with other types of PFAS, many of which pose similar health risks.
That agreement was made in 2006 — the same year the UV light test was proposed to certify the safety of moisture barriers, a layer of fabric that doesn’t typically see daylight, as it is sandwiched between two other layers of textiles within turnout gear.
The test was proposed by Elizabeth Easter, a University of Kentucky textiles professor whose resume shows that between 2001 and 2004, she received $100,000 from Lion Apparel, the sole turnout gear manufacturer that uses textiles made with PFAS in all three layers of gear.
Easter also worked with DuPont in 2011 and has received funding in the past from other major textile and turnout gear companies that use PFAS.
In an email, Easter said she proposed the UV light test based on studies she had conducted in response to a series of moisture barrier failures in the 1990s. Then, rapidly deteriorating fabrics were recalled because firefighters had suffered horrible burns when their water-soaked gear heated up.
‘Results showed that exposure to ultraviolet light resulted in the degradation of moisture barriers, this failure replicated field results,’ she wrote in an email to E&E News.
She did not respond to questions about why she decided to test the material with UV light to begin with, why it took so much time after the materials were recalled for her to propose her test, or whether her UV research was sponsored by the chemical or turnout gear industries.
A spokesman for DuPont did not respond to requests for comment.
Easter made her proposal to an NFPA volunteer committee consisting of industry consultants, textile and gear manufacturers, and representatives of fire departments. A representative of DuPont was an alternate member of the committee at the time.
NFPA rules state that each group cannot constitute more than one-third of the committee, to prevent any bias in the standards. But firefighters have long alleged that consultants who often contract with manufacturers can’t be objective.
Jeffrey Stull was the only committee member to oppose adopting the UV light test.
The protective equipment consultant said there wasn’t enough evidence to blame equipment failures on UV light, because ‘the moisture barrier would never be exposed to it.’
‘I didn’t think they found the root cause of this failure,’ he said, adding that he believed the test was intended as ‘a genuine solution to a problem wreaking havoc on the industry.’
But only textiles containing PFAS can pass the test, which knocked off the market other materials that didn’t use the chemicals and hadn’t been recalled…”