Indiana firefighters could get annual blood testing for exposure to synthetic PFAS chemicals through a proposed pilot program, according to a new bill introduced in the state house.
First developed in the 1940s, PFAS is a class of thousands of synthetic chemicals that have been extensively used in numerous applications including nonstick cookware, water-repellent fabrics, fast food wrappers and firefighting foam.
Many of those uses are being phased out, but PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they take decades to break down.
That means they just build up over time in the environment — including in groundwater, drinking water and the human bloodstream.
Scientific studies have linked PFAS exposure to numerous health problems including thyroid disorders, liver damage, testicular and kidney cancer, pregnancy complications and increased cholesterol levels.
Many of those uses are being phased out, and last October the Environmental Protection Agency announced a “strategic road map” to regulate PFAS, including setting safe limits for the chemicals in drinking water.
But firefighters may get exposed to a lot of PFAS — it’s used extensively in some firefighting foams, as well as in the protective clothes they wear.
In response to that potential exposure, Democratic Indiana House member Maureen Bauer has introduced a bill that would create a pilot blood testing program to study the long-term effects of PFAS exposure on Indiana’s firefighters.
“We have to protect those who protect and serve us,” Bauer, who represents the South Bend-based 6th district, said. “It isn’t being researched in Indiana — we aren’t looking into the human health impacts this is causing.”
The program would be established within the Indiana Department of Health and would choose five locations around the state, with a focus on airport and municipal departments.
Both professional and volunteer firefighters would be eligible to submit their blood every year for PFAS testing. The results would be logged in a database, and IDOH would publish annual reports on the program’s findings.
It would be funded through a Centers for Disease Control biomonitoring grant, which funds research into the health impacts of contaminants like PFAS and lead.
For example, Michigan used one of those grants last year to launch a similar program for the state’s firefighters.
Todd Skwarcan is the Assistant Chief of Services for the South Bend Fire Department. And if the legislation passes, he said SBFD — which has more than 250 members — is “absolutely” interested in participating.
“You know, they call them forever chemicals because they’re bio-accumulators,” Skwarcan said. “Once you get them, you don’t break them down and they don’t go away.”
According to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, cancer caused 66 percent of career firefighter deaths from 2002 to 2019. And firefighters are 9 percent more likely to be diagnosed with cancer — and 14 percent more likely to die of it — than the general public.
That includes slightly more than double the risk for testicular cancer, double the risk for mesothelioma and about 1.5 times the risk of developing multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“We’re susceptible to lung cancer, testicular cancer, throat cancers, and we’re seeing all these things manifest in our active firefighters and in our retirees,” Skwarcan said. “Just recently, we had a couple members that got Glioblastomas, which are relatively rare in the population, and we just had two in the last five years.”
Firefighters now are way better protected than the past, Skwarcan said, but cancer rates are still increasing.
“Intuitively, you think we should be less sick than firefighters that worked in the 70s, 80s or 90s, even,” he said. “But no — in fact, our cancer rates are increasing, and we have the best protection and gear and everything available.”
South Bend had actually been working on its own in-house PFAS testing program for all current firefighters and retirees. It would be funded through a grant from the National Institute of Health, but Skwarcan said hasn’t yet been able to get off the ground.
And so, he said a program like the one outlined in Bauer’s bill could provide valuable data on the potential long-term health effects of PFAS exposure, both for firefighters and the general public.
Skwarcan said the South Bend Fire Department has already phased out the use of PFAS containing foam, and the alternatives “work just as well.”
“We don’t notice any issues,” Skwarcan said.
But it was a complicated process, and disposal is expensive. Luckily, foam was not an everyday use for the department, as South Bend has an extensive network of fire hydrants.
The use of PFAS-containing foams is much more common at airports and military bases due to the types of fires more likely to break out in those locations.
So, will the bill pass? It’s up in the air.
The Indiana legislature banned the use of PFAS firefighting foams in all training exercises in 2020, and Bauer co-authored her bill with the author of that legislation, Martinsville Republican Peggy Mayfield.
And Governor Eric Holcomb said earlier this month that a voluntary state program collecting and disposing of all that PFAS firefighting foam is one of his administration’s top priorities this year.
Bauer’s bill also has the support of the Indiana Association of Firefighters, and Bauer said the state fire marshal has been working on the language.
The biggest hurdle is time — there’s only two weeks left to hear house bills, and if Bauer’s bill doesn’t get a hearing, it won’t move forward this session.
If that happens, she plans to re-introduce it next year.