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Guest opinion: PFAS Alternatives ACT addresses toxic chemicals in firefighters’ ‘protective’ gear, should become law

By Jonathan Sharp - | Jun 7, 2024

Firefighters' associations have long been vocal about the dangers of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in their turnout gear. Their voices were unheard by legislators until last year, when Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick introduced the bipartisan legislation known as the Protecting Firefighters and Advancing State-of-the-Art Alternatives Act (PFAS Alternatives ACT) in July 2023.

Firefighters' clothing, called turnout gear, is essential for protecting them from injuries in fire emergencies. However, paradoxically, the gear that protects them also poses long-term health risks because of the PFAS manufacturers have used for decades to produce it.

PFAS are a group of synthetic toxic chemicals used since the 1950s in an extensive range of household products. Because of PFAS's unique carbon-fluorine bond, it has been one of the main components of aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), a class-B type of firefighting foam made to extinguish fuel fires. Due to its oil- and water-repellent properties, manufacturers apply PFAS to the outer shell and the moisture barrier, the two outer layers of the three-layer firefighting turnout gear, mainly coats and pants.

PFAS have been named "forever chemicals" because they are highly persistent once they enter the soil and groundwater. Long-term exposure to PFAS leads to severe diseases such as decreased fertility, weakened immune systems and various types of cancers.

Research has shown that firefighters have comparatively high levels of at least one type of PFAS in their bodies. Numerous medical studies demonstrated that the rates of cancer diagnosis are higher among firefighters compared to the general population, leading to cancer being the main cause of firefighter death. Despite all the evidence, corporate interests have been prioritized over firefighters' safety, and PFAS-free protective clothing is still not manufactured in the U.S. today. The PFAS Alternatives Act finally addresses the problem.

Are there regulations concerning PFAS contamination in Utah?

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) acknowledges that because PFAS are present in so many consumer products coming from various sources, the cleanup and prevention of contamination poses considerable challenges to Utah's authorities. The DEQ also identified AFFF as the largest source of PFAS contamination in drinking water, groundwater, soils and air. Still, there are no enacted state laws to regulate the use and disposal of AFFF or the distribution of PFAS-containing firefighting equipment in Utah.

Laws prohibiting using AFFF for training and testing and requiring proper disposal have been implemented in many states nationwide, such as Maryland and Illinois. At the same time, California has phased out AFFF since 2022. Such and similar laws that aim to decrease PFAS contamination have been introduced in the past few years across the U.S. These regulations are necessary to protect firefighters and the general public from developing life-threatening illnesses.

The PFAS problem has also been taken more seriously at the Federal level. In March 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established the maximum contamination level (MCL) of PFOA and PFOS, the most common types of PFAS, at 4 parts per trillion (ppt), meaning virtually no contamination level is safe. The Department of Defense (DOD) stated that it would stop using AFFF by October 2024 while research is being done to find a suitable PFAS-free firefighting foam alternative. While these are all positive steps, there are "gray areas" regarding PFAS contamination, such as the presence of PFAS in firefighters' turnout gear.

Alternatives and solutions

Until recently, little information existed about the types and quantities of PFAS in firefighters' gear. In 2023, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) conducted an in-depth study of 20 textiles used in turnout gear coats and pants. The team targeted 53 and identified 26 types of PFAS within the clothing constructed in three layers: the outer shell, the moisture barrier and the thermal liner.

The least PFAS was found in the layer closest to firefighters' skin, the thermal lining, while the moisture barrier and the outer shell had PFAS concentrations up to 400 times higher. The results showed that the amount of PFAS in the gear varies widely depending on the fabric, the manufacturer and the layers. The results also suggest that the optimal selection of materials for each layer could significantly reduce the amount of PFAS in them. Still, more importantly, with the use of non-PFAS-based water repellent, this unnecessary professional hazard could be eliminated. However, the researchers emphasize that more research is needed to find an optimal replacement gear.

The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) has been lobbying for years to change the regulatory standards that have enabled toxins in firefighters' protective gear and for funding to find PFAS-free alternatives. In January 2023, the IAFF partnered with law firms to accelerate the process of their fight. The introduction of the PFAS Alternatives ACT shows that their actions were not in vain. The bill would authorize $25 million annually from 2024 until 2028 for research to develop PFAS-free turnout gear and an additional $2 million annually for guidance and training on wearing, cleaning and caring for the next-generation turnout gear. Hundreds of firefighters diagnosed with cancer are joining multidistrict lawsuits every month against irresponsible PFAS manufacturers in Utah and elsewhere in the U.S. The number of people getting sick with cancer could be reduced by ensuring they receive proper legal protection.

Jonathan Sharp is the chief financial officer at the Environmental Litigation Group, P.C., responsible for case evaluation, financial analysis and asset management. Environmental Litigation Group is a law firm headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, that assists civilian and military firefighters exposed to toxic chemicals, especially PFAS.

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