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Connecticut Firefighters’ No. 1 Killer: Cancer from Their Own Gear

The polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a group of chemicals that help make firefighting gear so protective. But they also produce an increased risk of exposure to carcinogens.

Danbury, Conn., Fire Chief Richard Thode opened an unzipped coat that is part of a firefighter's standard turnout gear. Its outer shell is dark gray, with reflective yellow and silver stripes on the sleeves.

The inside features a stitched silver layer, which is just one of the multiple layers. The outer shell is designed to be resistant to moisture and chemicals; the innermost layer is its thermal protection layer. Then there is a moisture-wicking layer, designed to repel sweat.

"That's where the PFAS is," Thode said, referring to polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of chemicals used in firefighting gear and foam because of their resistance to heat, water, oil and other substances.

The long-lasting chemicals provide firefighters with protection in extreme conditions. However, researchers, fire officials and union leaders say their presence in firefighting gear also increases the risk of exposure to carcinogens.

Earlier this year, the National Institute of Standards and Technology issued a report describing the prevalence of PFAS in turnout gear used by firefighters around the state and the country. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in a separate report described cancer as a leading cause of death for firefighters nationally.

Thode and other leaders locally and around the state have called for greater awareness of the hazard that firefighters face — not just by the firefighting scenes, but also from the cancer exposure they get from the gear that is designed to protect them from harm.

Connecticut lawmakers have joined that cause, and Gov. Ned Lamont signed a law, which became effective in October, that established the diagnosis of cancer as a "rebuttable presumption" in the firefighting occupation and allows firefighters who receive such diagnoses access to workers' compensation benefits.

Firefighters' Risks

"The real risk that we face is the structure fire. That's where we work the hardest, right?" said Danbury Fire Lt. Jeffrey Tomchik, who is also a Danbury City Council member and director of legislative and political affairs for the Uniformed Professional Fire Fighters Association of Connecticut. "So we're working to levels of exhaustion. We're sweating a lot, because we're hot. It's a very hot environment."

But firefighters' risks of contracting testicular, bladder or breast cancer are also increased because of their exposure to the PFAS in their gear, the studies show.

So firefighters such as Tomchik said they try to limit their direct skin contact, wearing fire protection gear only to calls involving structure fires or motor vehicle fires, and wearing lighter gear to medical calls and motor vehicle accidents that do not involve fires.

Protocols after a firefighting operation has been completed have also changed. Firefighters immediately take off those outer layers at the scene. And when they return to their stations, they take hot showers, Tomchik said, to remove any broken down materials from the gear.

It's a significant change since he became a firefighter 22 years ago, he said. When he started, firefighters kept their protective gear, including their boots and pants, next to their beds at night, Tomchik said.

"So when the bell rings, we just slide those on, go to our rigs, and go on calls," he said. "And we wear our gear all the time, every call that we go on: whether it was an EMS call, a fire call, motor vehicle accident."

Now firefighters have a second piece of standard gear, which is PFAS-free, for responding to those nonfire calls, he said.

"PFAS material absorbs into your skin," Tomchik said. "We've made significant strides in making change."

Tomchik and Thode noted that the equipment used by the Danbury Fire Department is designed to reduce firefighters' exposure to the PFAS layer. However, the gear deteriorates over time.

For now, PFAS materials are the thermal protection standard, as determined by the National Fire Protection Association, a self-funded nonprofit organization "devoted to eliminating death, injury, property and economic loss due to fire, electrical and related hazards," according to its website.

'Become Real for Us In Norwalk'

In a little more than 24 months, the fire department in Norwalk lost three men from its active ranks to cancer, said Peter Brown, a longtime Norwalk firefighter and president of the Uniformed Professional Firefighters Association — Connecticut's statewide union.

The late Craig Saris was one of them. Saris joined the fire service in 1997, on the same day as Brown. Eleven months ago, Saris died of complications from an aggressive form of kidney cancer after a three-year battle. He was 52.

That same month, Brown testified in favor of legislation that established presumptive cancer protections for firefighters due to occupational exposure. Brown told Connecticut lawmakers that for his friend, the hardest part of his cancer struggle was making sure his family would be protected.

"I can tell you that being his union leader, the most difficult thing for me to say was 'I don't know,' when he asked if his family would be taken care of after he passes. I told him that we would never stop fighting for them, but without line of duty death protection under the workers compensation system, nothing is guaranteed," Brown said at the time.

The Norwalk Fire Department also lost firefighter Ralph Geter and and Fire Marshal Luca Feola to cancer.

In an interview with Hearst Connecticut Media, Brown cited statistics from the International Fire Fighters Association, the national union, that cancer is the leading cause of active duty deaths for firefighters. It accounts for about two-thirds of all such deaths.

Scientific research is catching up, Brown said, showing that firefighters' risks for developing certain types of cancer is at least two to three times, sometimes five times, greater than the public.

"We've got dozens of firefighters that have had cancer across the state. Far too many that have lost their lives unfortunately. But way more that have had cancer, gone through treatment, are still in treatment, or are in remission," Brown said.

"Cancer has always been there. ... And it's something that you heard about," he said. "But I would say over the last 10 years it's really ramped up. We've seen it become so much more prevalent.

"It's the No. 1 killer of firefighters. But I can tell you, until it hits your department and your friends, and your brothers and sisters that you work with, it doesn't really become real. It's definitely become real for us in Norwalk," Brown said.

Litigation and Legislation

The International Association of Fire Fighters, the national firefighters union, is involved in litigation with the NFPA over the issue, saying the use of PFAS in turnout gear "poses an unnecessary occupational threat."

In a statement, IAFF General President Edward Kelly described cancer as "the No. 1 killer" of firefighters and said the union's initiative "will accelerate our search for PFAS-free gear."

Meanwhile, local union leaders and state lawmakers have taken steps to educate members of the cancer risks and to broaden the support for firefighters who contract cancer believed to be PFAS related.

State Sen. Julie Kushner, D- Danbury, said lawmakers have long sought to reduce firefighters' exposure to harm but only recently learned about the risks posed by firefighters' turnout gear.

"I think it's really incumbent on us to not only support all of the research and development to create better gear," Kushner said. "Then we will have to go back in and say, 'We need to mandate that our fire departments actually acquire the new gear'."

Lawmakers also broadly supported establishing funding to help firefighters due to their exposure to suspected carcinogens, she said.

"We need to deal with the ones that were already exposed," she said. "The struggle has been there has been resistance from some of the municipalities because of the cost."

But Kushner said cost should not be an obstacle.

"Whatever the cost, we have an obligation to protect our firefighters, because they protect us. And if we don't help them, then we're really failing. We can't ask them to risk their lives ... and then not say we're going to back them up, with everything we can to make them safer and healthier," she said.

Jason Burns, a longtime firefighter in Fall River, Mass., and former president of that city's firefighter union, has long sought to raise awareness around the dangers of PFAS. His efforts began when two members of his department, both in their 30s, died of cancer.

Burns has also questioned the industry process that made PFAS the standard for protection in turnout gear. The moisture protection layer is subject to an ultraviolet light test, while the outer shell isn't, he said.

"Basically what the standard held is your gear had to stand into UV light and be water repellent," he said. However, he and other advocates questioned why the outer shell is not held to that same standard.

A common use of PFAS is Teflon, which is common in cooking equipment, Burns said. It's also present in some cosmetics and in drinking water. Most people, he said, have some PFAS in their blood streams. But firefighters have significantly more than the average person, Burns said.

"You don't need PFAS to make a product water repellent," Burns said.

Brown said it was difficult to learn about the presence of the substances in firefighters' turnout gear.

"And it really kind of shook us. Our turnout gear is something that we count on. That's what keeps us safe. We wear it every single shift. You wear it in the firehouse, out of the firehouse. Not just fire calls, but routine calls, medical calls.

"It's become a symbol of firefighters: you see a firefighter in their helmet and their turnout gear. Now we're finding out that that prolonged exposure to our turnout gear has been hurting us for years," Brown said.

(c)2024 The News-Times (Danbury, Conn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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