A study released this week heightens concerns over firefighter exposure to fluorinated “forever chemicals” known as PFAS. The Notre Dame and Harvard study, published in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, discovered 99% of the fluorine found in tests of dust in fire stations comes from unknown per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals.
Jim Burneka, a firefighter in Dayton, Ohio, who also runs Firefighter Cancer Consultants, expresses his concern over their findings. Not only are industrial firefighters exposed to carcinogens as they fight fires, but he says the gear they wear to protect themselves and the station they work in is full of them.
These chemicals can make firefighters gravely ill. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health finds firefighters have a 9% higher risk of getting cancer and a 14% higher risk of dying from the disease than the rest of the population.
It is these concerns that drives Burneka to spend his free time helping departments take steps to lower cancer risk. Burneka visits departments throughout the U.S. and Canada to set up or enhance their firefighter cancer awareness, prevention, and support programs.
Because there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to cancer prevention, Burneka spends several days to a week with each department taking the time to learn how the department functions at fire scenes and back at the firehouse. He interviews staff, revises policies, and inspects the station from top to bottom to craft department-specific training and reports.
IFW caught up with Burneka to discuss this important issue and get practical tips to help departments lower cancer risk among their ranks.
THE BIG THREE
In his work, Burneka sees encounters three common problems: Improper SCBA use, a lack of annual medical screening, and improperly storing and cleaning gear.
“The biggest problem I see is not wearing SCBAs throughout the duration overhaul,” says Burneka. “Departments use their CO and HCN monitors and when limits are within normal ranges, they believe it’s magically safe to get off air. That’s not the case. Just because your CO and your HCN are within normal ranges does not mean it’s safe. Formaldehyde could be through the roof, and we have no way of knowing that. You must wear your SCBA from start to finish.”
Burneka explains members should consider every fire, whether a large-scale industrial fire or a small car fire, a hazmat incident, and treat it as such. “You do not know what’s going on inside there,” he says. “You should wear your masks the entire time to reduce exposure.”
Many departments also do not make annual medical physicals a priority. Often, it’s a matter of money, but sometimes it’s the firefighters who fight it because they fear that “it will be punitive if something goes wrong,” Burneka adds.
Annual medical physicals and skin exams are important. These exams catch health issues early, treat them, and get people back to work.
“It’s important to catch cancer early. When cancer goes undiagnosed for too long, you’re looking at chemo, radiation, and time off work,” he says.
The third concern is where departments keep and clean gear. Departments often house gear in apparatus bays that lack diesel exhaust systems. Their laundry facilities may lack a gear extractor, or even clothes washers, requiring firefighters to clean clothes and gear at home.
Burneka recommends firefighters remove their gear at the station and take a shower immediately. In 2015, researcher Jeffrey Stull performed a fluorescent aerosol screening test to see how smoke travels through turnout gear at a fire. He discovered smoke goes everywhere and anywhere it can and confirmed heavy exposure to the face and neck area.
“Smoke goes up our pants legs, where our cuffs are, and where our jacket meets our pants,” he says. “The neck is a high area of absorption. But while particulate blocking hoods are available, not every department has them.”
BEST PRACTICES FOR GEAR CARE AND STORAGE
Industrial firefighting is a dangerous occupation. To protect firefighters from burning up in fires, manufacturers put PFAS in their gear.
But though firefighters need that protection, Linda Birnhaum, former director of the National Institute for Environmental Sciences, warns of its use. “We know PFAS is in their gear, but it doesn’t stay in their gear. A lot of it migrates out and gets into the air they are breathing, and it’s on their hands and their bodies. If they take their gear home to wash, they are bringing it back to their families,” she told The New York Times in “Firefighters Battle an Unseen Hazard.”
Burneka stresses that though this is true, “It is imperative to wear your gear. You cannot fight a fire without it. But when you don’t need to wear your gear, don’t wear it. Don’t wear it because it’s cold outside, to the grocery store, or to work out. Wear it to the fire, wash it, then store it properly.”
The Notre Dame and Harvard study, published in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, highlighted the importance of proper gear storage. Gear leaves PFAS dust wherever it hangs and collects contaminants when stored improperly. Both the dust and the other contaminants can cause cancer.
Every department should own a gear washer extractor and only use this washer for turnout gear. Burneka recommends washing new gear before wearing it and after every fire.
He also advises departments to equip every firefighter with two sets of fitted gear. “If you are wearing gear, that’s not fitted to you, your exposure is greater. Fitted gear reduces your exposure.”
Store all gear in a separate room. “Many stations have limited space, but I recommend keeping gear in a separate room. The room should be dry, well ventilated, and protected from UV light and diesel exhaust.”
Burneka reports shipping containers offer a great and economical way to store gear. Departments can add lighting and ventilation to the units and situate the containers outside near the station. The containers store gear properly and moving gear outside reduces PFAS dust within the station.
HOW TO USE PFAS
Burneka predicts a day when state legislators mandate that departments eliminate PFAS foams by a set date. “They are giving everyone an opportunity to budget and get rid of it on their own,” he says.
That day is not yet here. Class B firefighting foam, including aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), still uses PFAS.
But as the harmful effects of PFAS on human health become known, states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and others have limited its use. Today laws limit Class B and Class A/B firefighting foams that contain PFAS to fighting fires and annual equipment testing. Departments cannot use foams in training exercises.
Flourine-free firefighting foams are available. But Burneka warns these foams may be C8 free but still contain C6, a close cousin to CA. It’s important to be particular when purchasing fluorine-free foam.
“It’s not as simple as just changing foams,” he adds. “You need to get PFAS foams out of your trucks and cannot just dump it out or pour it down a sewer. There is a disposal process. It takes several cycles of washing before it’s gone, and you can put in safer foam.”
The high cost of disposal prohibits many departments from eliminating PFAS foams in one fell swoop; most must do it gradually.
In the meantime, “use these foams sparingly and be smart about it,” says Burneka. “Don’t touch it if you don’t have to. I remember in training school where they would fill up a training tower with foam and we would have to walk through it. You cannot do that anymore. Remember, foam is toxic. Limit your exposure and avoid touching it.”
Firefighter Cancer Consultants offers “The 25,” a collection of tips to help departments increase cancer awareness and better protect firefighters from cancer. Departments wishing to take the next step toward prevention can contact Firefighter Cancer Consultants for a virtual or in-person consulting and training session to help decrease the risk of occupational cancer among their firefighters. Learn more at https://firefightercancerconsultants.com/ or call (937) 604-3611 or email [email protected].