By Jon Marr
There has been a lot of movement on the firefighter turnout gear PFAS issue within the last few months. It was first brought to our attention nearly two years ago by Station Pride and Diane Cotter highlighting the fluorinated chemical coatings in our fire gear. Since then, various news outlets have picked up the story, and likewise, even further issues relating to PFAS chemicals in AFFF was found to be poisoning water tables at numerous military installations around the globe possibly causing cancer.
What progress has been made with respect to investigating PFAS and Firefighter Turnout Gear?
Here is what you need to know.
The Last Call Foundation in Memory of Fallen Firefighter Michael Kennedy has assembled a committee to “Research Chemical Coatings in Fire Gear Then and Now.” The committee consists of Diane Cotter of Your Turnout Gear and PFOA., Kathy Crosby-Bell of the Last Call Foundation, Dr. Graham Peaslee of the University of Notre Dame, Jon Marr of Station-Pride.com, Mitchell Huner a Chicago Firefighter and owner of Fire Maul Tools, Jeff Knobbe a PPE Specialist with Alameda County Fire, Ryan Riley a Health and Safety Officer for Salem Fire Department in Mass, and Geoff Daly a consulting engineer and citizen environmentalist. The Last Call Foundation, through the committee, has awarded two grants totaling nearly $20,000 to further investigate the PFAS content of fire gear. The first grant was awarded to Dr. Graham Peaslee, an experimental nuclear physicist at the University of Notre Dame, to conduct testing of nearly 18 years-worth of fire gear both new and used. The second grant was awarded to conduct the same or similar tests by an independent laboratory.
The Committee’s goals are to research and investigate the PFAS content of fire gear and attempt to quantify the global concerns for firefighters whether it’s personal exposure or environmental contamination. The initial tests conducted by Dr. Peaslee earlier this year on samples of brand-new fire gear circa. 2004, resulted in discovering PFAS content thousands of times higher than the EPA’s limit for drinking water. Again, this was brand new, unused fire gear. This is, of course, a major concern and an alarming result worth investigating further.
We asked Dr. Peaslee six burning questions every firefighter needs to know and understand. Please pay close attention.
- Why should firefighters be concerned about this issue?
Unfortunately, firefighters and first-responders, in general, have to be concerned for several different reasons. First, the use of class B AFFF foams on oil and fuel fires can expose firefighters directly to PFAS. Until recently there were no restrictions on practicing with these foams, and sometimes even minimal PPE was used in practicing with these foams. Second, these foams were not incinerated upon use. They were often washed off roadways and runways into the surrounding groundwater, where these PFAS can migrate into nearby watersheds and drinking water supplies. This means many personnel (and their families) might be drinking the products of their AFFF foams dozens of years later. Finally, we have discovered that turnout gear and many first-responder uniforms have been treated with PFAS to provide water resistance to the gear. While water resistance is critical to a firefighter’s turnout gear, lining the garment with a Teflon layer has some potential problems. Teflon does decompose in high heat situations and creates incredibly toxic airborne chemicals (which is why bird owners are told to keep their parrots out of the kitchen when cooking with Teflon pans, or else they die). While firefighters do wear breathing apparatus to prevent this type of exposure, even normal use, normal laundering and sunlight exposure may break down the materials holding the PFAS to these garments. In such a case, PFAS chemicals could be released into the surroundings. I am concerned both from the immediate exposure possibility to the firefighter (and their family) but also from the end-of-life problem with turnout gear. Typically the gear is either donated abroad or cut up and sent to the landfill. In the landfill, over the next two decades, 100% of the PFAS will come off the gear and enter our waterways. This will be a problem for years to come.
- Can you briefly describe PFAS and/or PFOA? Where can they be found?
PFAS is the label we give to an entire class of chemicals (more than 3000 different types are known) that are all man-made, and they all contain fluorine bonded to carbon. We can call these fluorochemicals or organofluorine compounds, and they used to have different acronyms like PFCs, but per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) are the best description of these compounds. They are the world’s best surfactant molecule (think soap)…one end of the molecule hates water and the other end loves water, and thus these molecules line up at the interface between water and air, or water and kerosene. This is a particularly useful property in designing a fire-fighting foam, for example, as I understand it the foam forms a layer between the water and the jet fuel floating on top of it and surrounds the fire – and the fluorine-carbon bond is the strongest single bond in nature and it can withstand high temperatures and smother fuel fires. These molecules are also able to be chemically formed into polymers (long chains) like plastics. For example, TeflonÒ is a polymer made from PFAS and provides the ultimate in non-stick properties for both water and oil. One end of the molecule is adhered strongly to a surface and the other end repels oil and water better than any other molecule. So as a society we started using these miraculous chemicals everywhere, from Class B Aqueous Film-Forming Foams to StainmasterÒ carpets, to GoretexÒ coats, and even the lining of microwave popcorn bags.
One of the most widely used PFAS was perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), and it has 8 carbon atoms most bound to 2 or 3 fluorine atoms. In the 1990’s Dupont manufactured Teflon at a plant in Parkersburg, WV, and excess PFOA from the manufacturing process got into the local watershed, and into the drinking water supplies of Little Hocking, Ohio and several nearby towns. This is where the very strong carbon-fluorine bond becomes important again – these compounds last for a very long time in the environment. Sunlight and microorganisms cannot degrade these compounds, and so once they enter the environment, they persist and end up in the food web. When people began to get sick, the cause was discovered and Dupont offered a settlement of over $300M dollars if the people wouldn’t sue. Remarkably the residents of Parkersburg didn’t take the settlement money but instead retained the right to sue if the settlement money could be used to conduct a proper scientific study of whether PFOA was harmful to human health. Over 69,000 participants gave blood in the largest epidemiological study in the world to date. It took more than 7 years to finish, but PFOA in human blood was correlated unmistakably to six diseases: kidney cancer and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, hypertension, preeclampsia (pregnancy-induced hypertension) and ulcerative colitis. There were non-significant correlations with many of the 25 other diseases studied, but this was enough for the class action lawsuits to begin. As part of a settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency, Dupont and other US manufacturers agreed to phase out PFOA from production by 2008 or so, and use “short chain” PFAS instead of the C8 (or long-chain) PFAS. Of course, the studies of the other short-chain PFAS and their effects on human health are just beginning, so we have little idea how harmful these chemicals are yet.
Because of the widespread industrial use of PFAS, and the heavy use of AFFF and other PFAS-containing chemicals in industry, and consumer products, much of these chemicals are ending up in our drinking water. There was a recent study that suggests more than 100 million Americans may be drinking PFAS in their water above the new (lower) EPA limits of 70 parts-per-trillion for PFOA and another chemical called PFOS. There are no EPA limits on the thousands of other PFAS yet.
- Can you briefly describe the initial testing you conducted on the original test samples of fire gear and the results you obtained? What was your initial reaction?
We had been focusing on other consumer products (such as food packaging) and groundwater studies near several airbases when I was sent some turnout gear by a concerned firefighter. I have a rapid assay technique that can measure the presence of fluorine in minutes and the gear was loaded with fluorine. At that point, I learned that there were Teflon liners in much of the gear, and I sent some samples out for the full chemical analysis of which PFAS were actually present. The results came back showing C8, C10 and C12 PFAS (the long-chain ones) and part-per-million quantities. This is thousands of times over the drinking water limit although this was from a new (unused) set of turnout gear manufactured in 2004. While 99% of the fluorine is probably still tied up as a polymer in the textile, there was enough free PFAS in the material at the part per million level that it should be of concern, both for firefighter exposure and end-of-life of the gear. I was startled there was so much available to be measured by simply swabbing the gear. What if these chemicals get into human sweat? Could they directly enter the body then? Nobody knows the answer to that it turns out. I think the firefighters deserve some answers. It is already a risky profession, and while having additional harmful chemicals on the gear that is supposed to protect them may be a risk worth taking, I am not sure there aren’t less risky alternatives.
- Can you outline or briefly describe the testing you are doing now? How many sets of gear do we have from how many years? Are the sets new or used? What variety of tests are planned?
Working with professional firefighters who have donated both used and new turnout gear from a variety of years (2000-2017), we have accumulated dozens of samples to test. We will see which parts are treated with PFAS, contain Teflon or both. We will then identify which chemicals are present on contact, and if any PFAS come off the garment with regular use, regular laundering or in contact with human sweat. There are a variety of tests just to see if these chemicals are free to come off the gear at any point in their lifetime. If they don’t come off, then there is only the end-of-life issue with turnout gear. If PFAS are being shed from the clothing over time, then there is an exposure risk to people who wear the gear.
- What is the outlook of the testing and what is the solution to any adverse findings?
We should be able to answer the immediate questions of whether PFAS are present, and whether they come off the gear quickly. In that case we will also find out which particular PFAS they are. If there is an exposure risk, then we will follow up some animal testing with a colleague to determine whether these particular chemicals can enter the skin directly. I am hoping they don’t, but it will remain a concern of mine until we can prove otherwise. If these chemicals can enter the skin, then there will be a new sense of urgency to find replacements for treated turnout gear. If these chemicals don’t pose an exposure risk to the wearer, then we have the less urgent concern of how to keep them out of the landfill when they are taken out of service.
- Firefighters are concerned about exposure. Do you have any suggestions on how they can minimize exposure? They have to use the gear to do their jobs so contact is unavoidable.
For firefighters, I think it is important to recognize the vital role PPE plays in protecting them. You can’t understate that. Until we know more, the best we can do is a common sense approach to washing turnout gear before use, laundering it regularly as time permits, and keeping it at the station-house in an area that doesn’t come into contact with people as much as possible. You don’t want it at home and don’t recycle it into other uses. We all want to share other best practices to minimize potential exposure as people come up with them. We should be asking questions about alternative coatings for PPE and what we should be doing about out-of-service gear.