Understanding of cancer-causing materials in fire gear grows as researchers lay out new data
Understanding of cancer-causing materials in fire gear grows as researchers lay out new data

Understanding of cancer-causing materials in fire gear grows as researchers lay out new data

CONCORD, NC (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — Firefighters deal with intense heat, backdrafts, quick rescues, and, unfortunately, cancer from unsafe chemicals from protective gear and burn sites.

But does cancer from safety-related gear have to be part of the job?

The firefighter profession has become increasingly more dangerous for its rise in cancer-related deaths and cancer-related exposures, according to the World Health Organization. Recently, the organization labeled the job as a carcinogenic profession.

Studies show firefighters have a 60% chance of developing cancer after retirement. The most common types include intestinal, brain, mesothelioma, testicular, and Non-Hodgin’s Lymphoma.

Evidence and research point toward harmful chemicals made into the fire suits known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS.

These “forever” chemicals help remove common flammable materials. At the same time, they linger in the human body and the environment.

A firefighter washes his eyes with water in the village of Colmeias, near Leiria, central Portugal, Wednesday, July 13, 2022. Thousands of firefighters in Portugal continue to battle fires all over the country that forced the evacuation of dozens of people from their homes . (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

Some findings have found that these PFAS chemicals are why so many firefighters have been diagnosed with cancer and died from it.

On Tuesday, the International Association of Firefighters revealed it had secured a legal council to push for changes at a Las Vegas training summit.

A news release, in part, announced:

General President Edward Kelly announced today at the Affiliate Leadership Training Summit that the IAFF has retained three nationally recognized law firms to change regulatory standards, demand PFAS-free gear, and be available to be retained by members and families seeking compensation for PFAS-related illness .

PFAS “forever chemicals” are found in firefighter protective gear and have been linked to cancer, the leading cause of firefighter death.

“We need to combat what is killing us,” said Kelly. “Cancer is the number one killer of firefighters, and for years, corporate interests have put profits over our lives. It stops now. This initiative will accelerate our search for PFAS-free gear.”

The firms – Motley Rice LLC; Simmons Hanly Conroy LLC; and Sullivan Papain Block McGrath Coffinas & Cannavo PC – were selected to:

  • Change the regulatory standards and systems that have enabled toxins in firefighter protective turnout gear
  • Demand that all turnout gear get replaced with PFAS-free alternatives
  • Be available to be retained by members and their families to seek compensation for PFAS-related injuries

To read the complete statement, click here.

Conference takes aim at dangers of PFAS

As the association statement came out, North Carolina fire chiefs met for a briefing on cancer risks from experts who have researched the concern for the past six years.

They met in a pre-kick-off to the North Carolina Mid-Winter Fire Chief Conference.

“This helps get good and important information out there and clarifies some of the bad misinformation,” Concord Assistant Fire Chief Travis McGaha said.

The research team, helmed by Dr. R. Bryan Ormond with the Wilson College of Textiles, has explicitly looked at the fire gear most typically found in the US, the different cleaning methods, and which are most effective in eliminating the PFAS.

Ormond explained that developing complete concrete data has been challenging due to little testing.

“It’s a complicated mixture of things, (a) a complicated pathway of exposure,” he said.

While his team has found that some PFAS risks exist with fire equipment and turnout gear, other risks involve chemical byproducts from fires.

“One thing we haven’t even fully studied is the PFAS that came off of the smoke from a fire,” he said. “As that structure burns, PFAS is also generated and exposed through soot, smoke, and that’s another thing firefighters are exposed too . . . We can’t tell if it’s because of the air, the water, the soil, or because they’re firefighting.”

Fire investigators are often exposed to chemicals after the fire is extinguished. (Getty Images)

His data has also suggested that fire investigators stand a much higher risk of developing health difficulties from PFAS chemicals.

Fire investigators typically arrive on the scene and investigate the damage after an extinguished fire. They don’t wear the same protective gear as firefighters but get exposed to similar toxins.

McGaha said as a fire investigator, he needs to be more aware of the dangers.

“Vapor is something that really affects investigators that don’t affect other firefighters who are actually in the fire doing the suppression part,” he said. “For me to be available for my family, I need to start taking proactive measures with my health.”

Firefighters have been actively searching for alternatives and PFAS-free gear. However, studies have shown that it may not be as effective in everyday fire situations as PFAS present gear.

Ormond and his team suggested that if PFAS-free materials became more common, fire departments should redevelop tactics to attack flames and retrain firefighters on best practices to protect themselves.

The topic will be on the minds of many fire officials in the coming days at the Concord conference.

To find out more information, click here.

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