Station Pride Articles

Fire Gear & PFOA – The Data (The Real Cancer in Your Gear-Follow-Up)

A few months ago we published an article called “The Real Cancer in Your Gear.”  It was a lengthy article with a lot of information. As we understand it, the information caused quite a stir within the fire service community, as it should have. The idea that perfluorinated alkylated substances(PFAS) such as a perfluorooctanoic acid(PFOA) and perfluorochemicals(PFCs) might be a component of fire gear is a very concerning one.

Here’s why.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), “Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) are a group of chemicals used to make fluoropolymer coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water.” (1) Due to the chemical’s inherent properties, it’s logical that it would or could be used when manufacturing fire gear.  PFOA is in the PFC family. “PFOA can remain in the body for long periods of time. In laboratory animals given large amounts, PFOA can affect growth and development, reproduction, and injure the liver.”(1)

Countries throughout the European Union (EU) are banning PFOA in consumer products and regulating the chemical as a “Substance of Very High Concern (SVHC) under the REACH-regulation EC 1907/2006 and therefore subject to information obligations if present over 0.1% in an article.” Article meaning “a particular item or object, typically one of a specified type.”(2) READ THIS article here on Europe and PFOA in Firefighter Turnout Gear

PFOA is a chemical that never breaks down. Once it contaminates a substance it lasts forever. The use of PFAS chemicals have become so mainstream in fact that it can be found in most rivers, bodies of water, and in nearly every human. Last year, PFOA was found to be contaminating military installation water tables throughout the country due to its presence in firefighting foam. Military families living on base were exposed to heavy amounts of PFOA which have triggered lawsuits. In fact, the U.S. Military has already banned the use of firefighting foam due to it’s PFOA content. See Memo Here and article here and here.

As we understand it, Not all PFAS chemicals are PFOA’s HOWEVER, PFAS chemicals can and do break down into PFOA which can no longer break down. The chemistry can be confusing.

Testing the Gear

We’re not here to merely sound the alarm, we’re here to organize action and provide accurate information as we know it to be.

A brand new set of structural turnout gear with a manufacture date of 2004 was acquired for testing. The fire gear, provided by J.E. Henthorn of North Carolina, had never been sold, worn, or ever placed into service. The test gear sat on the shelf or on a mannequin for its entire life.

We contacted Dr. Graham Peaslee, the Professor for Experimental Nuclear Physics at the University of Notre Dame. Dr. Peaslee agreed to perform the initial test of the turnout gear to determine if PFAS were present. Dr. Peaslee provided us with proper direction in order to provide him appropriate turnout gear samples. Sample pieces of the turnout gear, both from the thermal layer and the outer shell, were cut from the left under-arm of the coat(FF-LUA), the moisture barrier(FF-MBTL), right sleeve by the cuff(FF-RSC), and the tail of the coat(FF-T). Samples were then shipped to the University of Notre Dame for testing.

Turnout Gear PFAS Test Result

As we expected, Dr. Peaslee reported that the turnout gear samples were heavily fluorinated. In fact, the scale which they use to measure these chemicals is typically in parts-per-million(ppm), however, that measurement wasn’t going to work right. In an email containing the results of the turnout gear test, Dr. Peaslee stated “these fabrics are so heavily fluorinated, they are better measured in percent fluorine content…each of the pieces contained between ~1 and ~4% This would typically indicate a very heavy treatment in PFAS chemicals to impart water and flame resistance to the fabric.” 

ppm F
Percent F

Dr. Peaslee provided further testing to rule out other fire resistant treatments and properties. Email excerpt here:

“We also looked at these fabrics yesterday with an X-ray Fluorescence unit, just to test for the presence of other flame retardants in the material, and we did not see any chlorinated nor brominated compounds nor heavy metals, so it looks like the flame-resistant properties of these materials are being given by fluorinated compounds alone.” 

Here’s the Bottom Line.

Further testing is needed to determine the presence of PFOA. This initial test helped us identify the fluorinated content of the turnout gear fabrics and allowed us the information we needed to determine if PFAS were present. And they were. The high-level presence of PFAS in the turnout gear we tested may provide an initial indication of the potential for PFOA, further testing is needed. The PFOA test is very expensive and can cost thousands of dollars. Fortunately, research scientists from Havard and the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the State University of New York and others have seen Dr. Peaslees’ test results within recent weeks and feel compelled to reappropriate potential grant funding for firefighter cancer research to include testing turnout gear. One thing is for certain, the scientific research community was very alarmed by this data and they intend to perform further testing.

Further testing may even be needed to determine what happens to the PFAS when in heated environments or exposed to steam and if there is any increased risk of absorption into the firefighter’s body.

Additionally: On 5 September 2017, Attorney Rob Bilott, famous for having brought down chemical manufacturing giant’s in the past, has filed for an EPA study with an impending lawsuit regarding PFOA. See document titled “The Firefighter Letter” here. and article here highlighting the mission of one firefighter, one doctor, and one lawyer.

As a person who has researched this independently, you would have thought I’d be happy the fluorine tests came back high, but my heart sunk to my stomach.


Please Stay Tuned. There is much more to come.


-Diane Cotter – Firefighter Spouse

of  Your Turnout Gear and PFOA

with editorial assistance from Station Pride. 



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About Mutual Aid (43 Articles)
Station-Pride is committed to providing high-quality content for our viewers. In order to do so, sometimes our contributors just aren't enough. This profile has been created to request mutual aid from other writers and authors in the fire service who are willing to share their knowledge with our followers. Please keep an eye out for guest contributions, and some with anonymous authors. Please keep in mind, Station-Pride contributors hold themselves to a very high level of professionalism. With that being said, these articles are un-edited and viewer discretion is advised.

1 Comment on Fire Gear & PFOA – The Data (The Real Cancer in Your Gear-Follow-Up)

  1. One can only hope, actually expect, that all of the agencies and organizations whose professed intent is to assure firefighter safety and survivability (NIOSH, ATSDR, NFFF, NFPA, IAFF, and so on) will openly, candidly and objectively collaborate to provide scientific, fact-based data that quantitatively evaluates the merits and demerits of this concern. The EU has already moved away from these materials. Could the PPE that’s designed and intended to save us in the short term actually be poisoning us, possibly even killing us, in the long term? It’s time to conclusively determine risk vs. gain, which is a concept that the fire service, both professional or paraprofessional, lives by every day. This is when we find out how much our national leadership really stands by the “everyone goes home” mantra. Own it; don’t blink.


5 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. PFAS/PFOA UPDATE: Conference Call with IAFF – Station Pride
  2. Fire Gear Laboratory Test Results – Station Pride
  3. NBC Boston Investigates Fire Gear PFOA and Cancer – Station Pride
  4. Notre Dame University Pushes the Modern Fire Service to be Better. – Station Pride
  5. New IAFF-Backed Fire Gear PFAS Study by Oregon State Discovers 100-Times More Volatile PFAS than Previously Known. – Station Pride

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