Firefighters are disproportionately struck by cancer compared to the general population. A growing body of evidence points towards the PFAS – also known as “forever chemicals”, since they don’t degrade – in firefighting turnout gear, applied to make the clothing water-repellant.
They are the men and women who put their lives on the line to save other’s every day. But being a firefighter entails an invisible occupational hazard that can be just as deadly as running into a burning building, caused by the very equipment meant to protect them from the roaring fire.
According to two large studies conducted in the US, firefighters are 9% more likely to be diagnosed with cancer, and 14% more likely to die from the disease, compared to the general population.
Or as Lieutenant Ron Glass, president of the Orlando Professional Firefighters union, who has been a firefighter for 25 years and lost two of his colleagues to cancer in the past year, put it in an article in The New York Times:
“When I first got hired, the leading cause of death was a line-of-duty fire accident, then it was heart attacks. Now it’s all cancers.”
There is no lack of occupational hazards in the firefighting profession. Initially, the blame for the high cancer rates was put on toxic fumes from the materials burning and the presence of harmful PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in firefighting foam.
Could the answer be hidden in the clothes?
But the rates in which firefighters get testicular cancer, mesothelioma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – the three most common cancer forms for firefighters – have not declined, even though now use sophisticated smoke masks and air packs to protect themselves from toxic fumes.
“Then we started looking at our bunker gear [also known as turnout gear, editor’s note]. The manufacturers initially told us there’s nothing wrong, there’s nothing harmful at all. But it turns out there’s PFAS not only on the outer shell, but in the interior lining, which goes against our skin”, Ron Glass says in The New York Times article.
Dr. Graham F. Peaslee, a professor in experimental nuclear physics, chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame, led a study that was published last year, which found significant quantities of PFAS chemicals in firefighters’ turnout gear, applied to make the clothes water-repellant, so they don’t get soaked and heavy to work in.
The firefighter’s wife became suspicious
Dr. Peaslee began the study in 2017, when he was contacted by Diane Cotter, whose husband – a veteran firefighter – had been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. Paul Cotter was healthy and took care of himself, so Diane Cotter suspected that something other than smoke had caused the cancer.