As wildfires rage in Ventura and Coachella Valley, over 86 firefighters in Orlando have tested positive for coronavirus. The fires, in combination with heightened exposure to the virus, have brought the quality of firefighter PPE under scrutiny. Recently, the University of Notre Dame released a study that states firefighters “face an additional risk just by gearing up,” as a result of the PFAS used to make PPE water and oil resistant.
What are PFAS and why are they so prevalent in our environment?
According to Graham Peaslee, Professor of Physics at Notre Dame, firefighter gear tested for high concentrations of PFAS, or polyfluorinated alkyl substances, which are commonly found in products that resist grease, water, and oil. Some household items that include the substances are nonstick pans, stain-resistant fabrics; but more importantly, they make up a large portion of firefighting foams.
In fact, PFAS exist in low levels in our bloodstream, our livestock, and our environment. Dubbed “forever chemicals,” the accumulation of PFAS in our bodies, soil, and water can create a continuous source of exposure. Due to this, The CDC, NCEH, and ATSDR have deemed PFAS a growing public health concern. In response, they have invested more research in determining the possible health effects of PFAS across 30 communities.
Firefighters and their heightened exposure to possible health effects
As stated in the study, firefighters face higher risks of exposure due to the high concentration of PFAS needed in their gear and how the PFAs interact with the gear’s layers. According to Peaslee, the PFAS from PPE layers can easily come into direct contact with skin. The moisture and outer barrier then act as a permanent source of exposure for firefighters.
“If they touch the gear, it gets on their hands, and if they go fight a fire and they put the gear on and take it off and then go eat and don’t wash hands, it could transfer hand to mouth,” Peaslee said. “And if you’re sweating, could some of these chemicals come off on the thermal layer and get into the skin? The answer is probably.”
While health effects would require further study, gear companies such as 3M have already phased out the production of PFAs. The United States Department of Defense plans to shift to a more environmentally safer firefighting foam by 2023, after seeing contamination of drinking water systems.
Additionally, Peaslee linked PFAS to four of the top eight cancers which have been found more commonly in firefighters. These include testicular cancer, mesothelioma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and prostate cancer.
Jessica is a writer based in NYC, with bylines at Vox and EGMNOW. You can pitch her stories at jessica [at] therising.co