by: Sharon Udasin

The International Association of Fire Fighters called on Monday for the elimination of protective gear that contains “forever chemicals,” saying swift regulatory action is needed to address the toxic substances. 

The union — which has more than 333,000 members — announced that it has retained the services of three nationally recognized law firms to pursue these goals, and to help members and their families seek compensation for related illnesses.

The toxins in question — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — are known for their presence in both jet fuel firefighting foam and the gear worn by firefighters and rescue workers. They are also common in a variety of household items, such as nonstick pans, cosmetics and waterproof apparel.

These cancer-linked compounds are notorious for their ability to linger in the human body and the environment.

“We need to combat what is killing us,” Edward Kelly, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said in a statement.

“Cancer is the number one killer of firefighters, and for years, corporate interests have put profits over our lives,” he continued. “It stops now. This initiative will accelerate our search for PFAS-free gear.”

Kelly announced the selection of Motley Rice LLC; Simmons Hanly Conroy LLC; and Sullivan Papain Block McGrath Coffinas & Cannavo P.C. at a training summit in Las Vegas on Monday. The firms will be working to change the regulatory standards and systems that the union says have enabled toxins in firefighter protective turnout gear, he said.

They will also demand that all turnout gear be replaced with PFAS-free alternatives, according to Kelly.

Meanwhile, the law firms will be available for those members and their families looking to seek compensation for PFAS-related injuries.

“This is the challenge of our generation — and I refuse to let it become a challenge for our children and their children,” Kelly said.

At the Las Vegas training meeting on Monday, the International Association of Fire Fighters also hosted the world premiere screening of “Burned,” a documentary produced by actor Mark Ruffalo.

Ruffalo has long been championing the fight against forever chemicals, having previously portrayed attorney Rob Bilott — known for representing PFAS contamination victims in West Virginia, against manufacturer DuPont — in the 2019 film “Dark Waters.”

The short film “Burned” tells the story of how the spouse of a Massachusetts firefighter identified significant exposure to forever chemicals in turnout gear following her husband’s cancer diagnosis.

“As he began to slip further and further away from me, I just had to find out why, how this happens to somebody so healthy,” Diane Cotter says in the film of her husband, Paul Cotter.

After much research, Diane Cotter said she began to “put two and two together” and understand that the PFAS in her husband’s degrading turnout gear could have been putting him at risk.

“It’s always passed off as a given — ‘Well, you’re going to get cancer.’ People accept it,” Paul Cotter says in the documentary. 

Diane Cotter eventually sent samples of the gear to Graham Peaslee of the University of Notre Dame, who was able to test the items for PFAS content.

“The gear did have these chemicals, and it had it in staggering amounts,” she said.

Addressing firefighters directly, Ruffalo stressed in the film how their “protective wear is also awash in these forever chemicals — both on the outside and the inside because of their water-repellant qualities.”

“It’s not fair that you are literally encapsulated in these chemicals every single day, every moment you do your job,” he added.