Firefighters across the region are decrying a decision by the National Fire Protection Association to allow the continued use of toxic “forever chemicals” called PFAS in the protective gear worn by firefighters.
The NFPA decision means cancer-causing chemicals will remain in firefighting gear, exposing firefighters every time they wear it. Research links PFAS to kidney, testicular, prostate, breast, liver, and ovarian cancers, among other diseases. These studies further show that firefighters have higher levels of PFAS in their blood than the general public.
“Every firehouse in Massachusetts, across the country, and really across the world has been touched by cancer and we’re really seeing younger and younger firefighters being diagnosed with all sorts of cancer and some of them very rare cancers,” Nantucket Deputy Fire chief Sean Mitchell told WGBH. “The one thing that we would like to have control of is what we are exposing ourselves to every day. When we expose ourselves to our turnout gear, and it’s full of these PFAS chemicals which are likely harming firefighters, we’ve seen firefighters stand up and say, ‘We don’t want that anymore.’”
Firefighters and anti-PFAS groups had asked the NFPA Standards Council to stop requiring that the middle layer in turnout gear, known as the moisture barrier, to withstand 40 hours of continuous UV light. Textiles need PFAS to achieve this standard.
The 40-hour UV test has faced criticism in recent years because the middle layer is never exposed to 40 hours of UV light. A vote by members of the NFPA committee, which comprises industry consultants, textile and gear manufacturers, and representatives of fire departments, could have removed the standard, allowing manufacturers to produce fully PFAS-free gear.
“Even though all the firefighters have spoken — including the International Association of Fire Fighters, who represents 325,000 firefighters in North America, [which] said, ‘We don't want PFAS in our turnout out gear,’ — the NFPA has chosen repeatedly to deny us of that,” Mitchell told WGBH. “We will continue to be exposed unnecessarily to these chemicals.”
In a letter explaining the decision, NFPA representatives said they believed removing the test before understanding how it could affect the moisture barrier could pose serious safety risks. They also pledged that a task force will review PFAS use in gear and make a later recommendation.
“The Council notes that all parties in favor and against this appeal agreed that [opponents to the standard] raise timely, important issues, therefore the Council directs that the progressing Task Group work on this issue be expedited,” the letter said.
Mitchell promised the fight isn’t over. “We won’t give up,” he said.