The heavy turnout gear firefighters use to protect themselves from flames and other hazards is highly likely to contain a range of carcinogenic chemicals, according to a new study.
Harvard University researchers took dust samples at 15 fire stations in Eastern Massachusetts and found significant amounts of toxic compounds known as PFAS. The so-called “forever chemicals,” which never fully degrade, have been linked to cancer, low infant birth weights, and suppression of the immune system.
Researchers found the highest concentrations of the chemicals in rooms where turnout gear was stored. The stations rarely, if ever, used foam, a known source of PFAS, to fight fires.
Using special vacuums and wipes, the researchers tested for just two dozen of nearly 5,000 known PFAS compounds and found concentrations in the storage rooms with turnout gear at nearly twice the amount found elsewhere in the stations.
Perhaps more concerning, their tests detected the presence of far greater amounts of other PFAS compounds. The researchers said the 24 chemicals they tested for amounted to about 1 percent of all the compounds likely to contain forever chemicals in the dust.
PFAS was designed to repel water and resist heat, among other uses, and has long been suspected to be present in turnout gear. Firefighters have been found to have elevated concentrations in their blood.
“It is concerning that PFAS appears to be added to and contaminating the gear meant to protect them,” said Anna Young, research fellow at the department of environmental health at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the study’s lead researcher. “We know these chemicals bioaccumulate and are harmful to our health.”
Firefighters in recent years have expressed growing alarm about the potential danger of toxic chemicals in their gear, especially given their elevated cancer rates. Studies from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have found that firefighters have a 9 percent higher risk of getting cancer than other Americans, and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from the disease.
Between 2002 and 2019, cancer caused 66 percent of career firefighter “line-of-duty deaths,” according to the International Association of Fire Fighters, the nation’s largest firefighters’ union.
In October, firefighters in California sued 3M, Chemours, E.I. du Pont de Nemours, and other manufacturers of turnout gear, alleging that the companies knowingly produced and sold firefighting equipment with PFAS.
Last week, firefighters on Nantucket and in Fall River persuaded fellow members of the IAFF, which represents 324,000 full-time firefighters, to ban sponsorships of their meetings from equipment makers and the chemical industry.
Captain Sean Mitchell of the Nantucket Fire Department said the study showed “the fire service has been misled by the industry for far too long.”
“The fact that we have been unknowingly exposed to toxic chemicals from our turnout gear, which is supposed to keep us safe, is horrifying,” he said. “Learning that the industry has been aware of these dangers for decades and chose not to tell us, should make every firefighter angry.”
Jason Burns, a firefighter in Fall River, said the study confirmed what he has long feared. “Quite frankly, it angers me, and I feel duped,” he said.
Both said they know many firefighters who have been diagnosed with cancer, and some who have died.
The study, however, does not establish a link between the presence of PFAS chemicals in firefighting gear and cancer. Firefighters are exposed to a range of carcinogens in flame retardants and regular consumer products that burn in fires, many of which contain PFAS chemicals.
Amy Calhoun, a spokeswoman for W. L. Gore & Associates, a Delaware manufacturer of moisture-barrier textiles used in turnout gear, said their equipment was “developed to protect firefighters working in harsh and often dangerous conditions.”
“Because there are clear and important distinctions between the more than 4,700 materials often referred to as PFAS, it is a very complex topic,” she said. “It would be inappropriate for Gore to comment on this study without a more careful review.”
Scientists have found that even minute amounts of many of the chemicals can be dangerous. In 2019, Massachusetts set new standards that require communities to clean up contaminated groundwater and drinking water if the total concentration of six PFAS chemicals reaches 20 parts per trillion, far less than the amount found at the fire stations.
While there’s a significant difference between PFAS in drinking water, scientists noted that dust is also dangerous because it can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin.
“This study should serve as the final stake through the heart of the industry’s denials regarding the presence of PFAS in firefighter turnout gear,” said Kyla Bennett, science policy director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an advocacy group. “Our firefighters risk their lives every day, but putting on their turnout gear should not expose them to toxic chemicals.”
The study, which was published in the latest edition of the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, suggests the dangers from such exposure to toxic dust may be significant, given that firefighters spend on average three-quarters of their 24-hour shifts at their stations.
Graham F. Peaslee, a physics and biochemistry professor at the University of Notre Dame and a coauthor of the study, said the research appeared to corroborate his previous studies.
“This is a crucial confirmatory study for what the firefighters have been worried about,” he said. “The fact that the dust is filled with the type of PFAS associated with textiles instead of foam is the first surprising result. The fact that is highly correlated with textile storage areas within the fire station is just a nail in that coffin.”