Read the full article by Ariel Wittenberg (E&E News)

First in a series.

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.”…