This past month, peer-reviewed research conducted by one of the best-known PFAS laboratories in the world, and backed by the International Association of Firefighters(IAFF) was published in the Environmental Science and Technology Letters. This new study, led by Dr. Jennifer Field of the Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology at Oregon State University, largely confirms Dr. Peaslee’s Research out of Notre Dame which published in 2020 and continues a lengthy effort to identify, quantify, define, and prove occupational exposure to PFAS and ultimately seek to remove it from our fire gear. The highly technical paper is not easily understood by most firefighters. The paper, instead, was written for other scientists, specifically exposure scientists, so that they may continue the work of qualifying this issue. This Station Pride article will round out the corners of the information in this study and help you make sense of it.
We’re careful not to suggest that PFAS in fire gear is the smoking gun on firefighter cancer, however, it is a situation primed for investigation. We’re also not suggesting that a one-time exposure to your turnout gear is going to cause you to acquire cancer. The type of exposure we’re discussing here occurs repeatedly over time. In OSHA terms, we’re likely looking at something measured between Time-Weighted Average(TWA) and Short-Term Exposure Limit(STEL). However, these limits are not known and all of this is research to come. If you look too deep, the chemistry can be complicated but the mechanism of exposure is easy-enough to understand; the longer you are in contact with something that isn’t good for you, the more it can affect your health. Proving this type of exposure however, is an entirely different scientific matter. Bottom-line, we still need to do our jobs and we still need to wear our gear, although, perhaps we adjust to only wearing it when we’re fighting a fire, performing vehicle extrication or other hazardous situations. It should be communicated that at no time do we believe the fire gear manufacturers knowingly did anything that might harm firefighters, nor do we believe there was some kind of sinister plot. It all appears to be a folly of research and development in an effort to meet the requirements of NFPA 1971 and keep us safe from the hazards we face.
How did we get here?
Prior to Diane Cotter’s article “The Real Cancer in Your Gear” published on Station Pride in March of 2017, nobody in the fire service had a clue that cancer-causing chemicals were saturating their fire gear. Furthermore, nobody could have fathomed that the very gear made to protect firefighters might be harming them in the long run. After the article published, a small flurry of controversy ensued. The information Diane uncovered had disrupted the ecosystem and shed light on a concerning potential for occupational exposure, as well as unusual sponsorships and friendships. Firefighters across the country began asking questions as manufacturers entrenched themselves in defensive positions. The IAFF (at the time) had a …nothing-to-see-here… attitude, while chemical companies and fire gear manufacturers continued to sponsor Firefighter Cancer Conferences donating gobs of money to the fire union and teaching classes on how to wipe your skin clean with wetnaps. In addition, Diane Cotter, the wife of a Worcester Fire Lieutenant, a hairdresser, was labeled as crazy and further ostracized by the very people she was trying to help. Just two months later in May of 2017, the IAFF released a statement stating that PFOA “did not pose a risk to the end-user.” The IAFF had based this statement on information they received from the people who sell the chemicals and the gear, their sponsors. Diane Cotter along with Station Pride secured funding from the Last Call Foundation to fund a peer-reviewed study led by Experimental Nuclear Physics Professor Dr. Graham Peaslee of Notre Dame. His tests confirmed the presence of high quantities of PFAS chemicals in unused/new fire gear which sparked a handful of additional studies including a Harvard Dust study, a blood serum study, and a skin aborption study.
Fast-forward to present-day 2022, PFAS in fire gear is a well-known reality among American firefighters. Across the country and the world, fire service members are now intimately aware the exposure hazard exists. Some departments have designed fire gear usage policies around this information accordingly. The IAFF’s position has flipped 180-degrees, due largely to new leadership under Ed Kelly. The IAFF has decided to take this issue head-on by partnering with the Environmental Working Group and the American Cancer Society to further push for change. Ed Kelly is quoted in the below video announcing to all manufacturers and the world that “our health and safety is non-negotiable.” Furthermore, mainstream publications like Fire Engineering and well-known Fire Service Leaders like Chief Bobby Halton, Frank Ricci, and PJ Norwood, began discussing the topic and inviting experts to speak on the matter. We’re delighted that major fire service media has taken the torch on this issue. As a post-college hobby, Station Pride was only going to take this issue so far. For what felt like a couple of very long years, Station Pride along with Diane Cotter, were alone on this issue. It wasn’t always a comfortable position to be in, however, our efforts paid off and we’re glad to see those in positions of authority leading the charge. From our perspective, we got the message out so change could occur, and that change is happening on so many different levels. We didn’t jump hastily into this issue nor did we ask to be here, but it was always going to be somebody’s responsibility to break the bad news. That responsibility happened to fall at our feet.
Before we dive into the details of this new Oregon State study, we need to understand the method used by both. The original study out of Notre Dame was intended to prove that PFAS chemicals per present and the chemical comes off the garment. Notre Dame used a process that would measure the amount of PFAS that might shed over the course of a year. The Oregon State study used a process that measures the amount of PFAS that might shed off the garment in a day. Both methods produced differing numbers that qualify each other, but both proved the presence of large quantities of PFAS and both studies proved that PFAS does shed from the gear and into the environment and onto us. Additionally, the Oregon State study used an accompanying method to detect volatile PFAS. To quote the study:
“The outer layer, moisture barrier, and thermal layers of the turnout gear all yielded measured concentrations of volatile PFASs that exceeded nonvolatile PFAS concentrations, but the summed molar concentrations made up only a small fraction of total fluorine (0.0016−6.7%). Moisture barrier layers comprised a PTFE film, as determined by py-GC−MS, and gave the highest individual nonvolatile (0.159 mg F/kg) and volatile PFAS (20.7 mg F/kg) as well as total fluorine (122,000 mg F/kg) concentrations…. New turnout gear should be examined as a potential source of firefighter occupational exposure to nonvolatile and volatile PFASs in future assessments.” (1)
What does this mean?
What’s important to take away from this study is that not only do we have confirmation that large quantities of PFAS exist in the gear, but, Oregon State further identified volatile PFAS 100-times greater than Notre Dame’s study. To put it another way, Oregon’s State measured 100-times more volatile PFAS than was originally thought to be there. Volatile PFAS are more likely to turn into a gas form, which can make them more harmful. Volatile PFAS are odorless and they more easily come off the gear when exposed to heat. The exposure impact of volatile PFAS are not entirely known. The original concern with regard to the Notre Dame study was the potential exposure through skin absorption. The Oregon State study brought to light, what appears to be, a potential inhalation hazard. Either way, the addition of another potential exposure route is unsettling. More research is needed into the exposure implications and we expect a skin absorption and blood serum study to publish within the next few months.
In addition to all the completed and pending research, other efforts are underway to change NFPA 1971. A Tentative Interim Amendment(TIA) was submitted requesting the UV light test be removed from the standard because that requirement drove manufacturers to use PFAS chemicals in order to comply, however, that TIA effort failed. Another attempt is in the near future. You can follow that work here. https://www.pfasfreeppe.com/
Please look for our question and answer article with Dr. Graham Peaslee here
HERE is a Webinar on PFAS Exposure and Epigenetics in the Firefighter Cohort Study.
- Environ. Sci. Technol. 2022, 56, 2, 974–983Publication Date:December 27, 2021https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.1c06322