Waterproofing chemicals in the protective gear worn by firefighters may be exposing them to “significant quantities” of potentially toxic fluorochemicals, according to a new study from the University of Notre Dame.
The research is some of the first to show PFAS chemicals present in firefighting gear, establishing a new exposure point for the substances. Previous research has linked use of some firefighting foams to elevated concentrations of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in firefighters’ bloodstreams.
“The amazing thing is that nobody knew this,” said Graham F. Peaslee, a professor of experimental nuclear physics at the University of Notre Dame and one of the study’s authors.
“It took the spouse of a firefighter writing to me and saying, ‘I’m trying to find out what this gear is made out of and no one will tell me,’” the researcher said.
PFAS have been used by hundreds of companies to make thousands of products, including semiconductors, sticky notes, and shoes. The original PFAS manufacturers—the 3M Co. and DuPont—Chemours, a DuPont spinoff, and some companies using the chemicals are the subject of several PFAS-related lawsuits.
The chemicals are used in the form of fluoropolymers, a form of PFAS, to make gear water- and oil-resistant, but PFAS also persist in the environment and in human bodies. California is one of several states looking at safer alternatives to the chemicals in textiles and other consumer products.
Cancer in Firefighters
Research has found PFAS exposure may lead to an increased risk of cancer—the leading cause of death among firefighters, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters.
The study used 30 sets of samples from unused and used firefighter turnout gear from six U.S. manufacturers.
The study identifies specific PFAS on firefighting textiles in the parts-per-billion range, and total fluorine in the parts-per-million range.
“That says we’re sort of swimming in a sea of it,” Peaslee said of the measured chemical quantities. “Those numbers for scientists are scarily high because usually we use the parts-per-trillion, which is a factor of a thousand less.”
But the paper cautions that the amount of PFAS transferred from a garment isn’t equivalent to that level of exposure. More research needs to be done to determine how much of the chemicals enter the bloodstream, it found.
Still, the levels of PFAS found on the garments is enough for fire departments to consider adopting new policies minimizing contact with protective gear when not in use, according to Peaslee.
The International Association of Fire Fighters—a union representing approximately 320,000 members in the U.S. and Canada—said in a statement that the new study is “important” in providing the necessary data to identify cancer-causing agents for firefighters.
“This research, in addition to the numerous studies sponsored by the IAFF, provides necessary information to make changes to protect our members on the frontline,” the union said in a statement.
No federal limits on PFAS have yet been established. The Environmental Protection Agency established a nonbinding health advisory level of 70 parts-per-trillion for the presence of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water, and is considering further regulations.