Firefighter Daniel Ranahan, from Boston, had heard about colleagues getting cancer but he was stunned when doctors discovered a tumor in his chest.
He was only 30 and had been on the rolls for less than a decade. But as he investigated his diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in October 2020 and sought successful treatment, he learned he and others wore gear that contained the toxic industrial compound PFAS.
“You always hear about the dangers. You just never think it’s going (to) be you,” said Ranahan, who stopped working due to the cancer and is among thousands of firefighters nationwide who sued PFAS manufacturers and companies that make firefighting gear and foam, seeking damages for their exposure.
“These guys put this on day in and day out to protect neighborhoods and wherever they are working,” he said. The Associated Press was not given access to his doctors due to the ongoing litigation, making it difficult to independently verify his claims.
The multi-layered coats and pants worn by firefighters have become the latest battleground over PFAS, or per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances. It’s found in everything from food packaging to clothing and is associated with health problems including several types of cancer. In March, the Environmental Protection Agency for the first time proposed limits on the chemicals in drinking water.
The news that PFAS compounds are in their gear — primarily meant to repel water and contaminants like oil and prevent moisture-related burns — is worrisome to firefighters.
The International Association of Fire Fighters or IAFF says that cancer has replaced heart disease as the biggest cause of line-of duty deaths. Firefighters have been shown to be at higher risk than the general population of getting several types of cancer.
Firefighters are exposed to a laundry list of carcinogens coming from fires burning hotter and faster than ever before — often due to increased petroleum products in homes. But as they learn more about PFAS, firefighters have grown suspicious that their personal protective equipment or PPE is sickening them.
Aurora Fire Rescue chief Alec Oughton said first responders have only recently become aware of the potential hazards posed by their own PFAS-laced gear.
“We signed up for going into fires. We signed up for caring for our community in pandemics and in environments that produce carcinogens,” Oughton said. “What we didn’t understand and what we are learning now is that some of the equipment that’s designed to protect us from cancer is reaching into our bodies and has the potential to cause cancer.”
He said the agency follows national best practices for decontamination when its members return from calls, including expecting firefighters to shower within an hour of going into a fire. There have also been discussions about removing and cleaning all of the firefighting equipment in the cab of a truck that has returned from a fire, but it’s not clear whether that can be done without impacting response times.
About five years ago, the Aurora City Council set aside $800,000 for gear cleaning and additional sets of structural fire gear to prevent firefighters from having to don contaminated equipment.
But Oughton and Travis Pulliam, president of Aurora Fire FIghters Local 1290, said PFAS compounds — which have been dubbed “forever chemicals” for their ability to linger in the environment and in the human body for years without breaking down — are in all of the multi-layered suits worn by Aurora firefighters responding to structure fires.
“There is not a manufacturer that makes structural firefighting gear that doesn’t have the forever chemicals in it,” Pulliam said. “One has committed to trying to make that gear in the future. The others are spending their time trying to argue that PFAS doesn’t cause
He and Oughton said there is a campaign underway to pressure gear manufacturers into phasing out PFAS. A Congressional bill introduced in July would accelerate the search for safer alternatives and support firefighter training to reduce exposure from existing gear.
Other groups are taking legal action on behalf of firefighters who were exposed to PFAS present in their gear. Sam Dillon, president of Boston Firefighters, Local 718, said that, once his union became aware of the problem, it had to act.
“When we break it down, the problem, to us, becomes very simple,” he said. “There is proven science that PFAS is a known carcinogen. There is also proven science that PFAS is in protective gear that firefighters wear. So when it’s brought to our attention that there is a known carcinogen in the protective ensemble that our members wear, it is (of) grave concern to the union and it’s our job to address that issue.”
One defendant in the related lawsuits, 3M Co., said in a statement that it “manufactures a variety of personal protective equipment products that meet nationally recognized standards to help protect first responders facing high-hazard environments.” Last year, the company announced it would stop manufacturing PFAS by the end of 2025 and would work to discontinue using the chemicals in its products.
Another defendant, W. L. Gore & Associates, says the PFAS compound PTFE used in its clothing is nontoxic and safe.
“Based on the body of available and reliable science, Gore concludes its firefighting products are not the cause of cancers impacting firefighters, who by the nature of their important work are sometimes exposed to cancer-causing chemicals from fires,” said company spokesperson Amy Calhoun.
The American Chemistry Council said in a statement that “PFAS-based materials are the only viable options for some key equipment that meet the vital performance properties required for firefighting gear.”
Heightened concerns about gear
The PFAS has been in the gear for decades. But the wife of retired Worcester, Massachusetts fire lieutenant Paul Cotter who had cancer raised concerns about PFAS in gear in 2016. Until then, many firefighters had not heard of PFAS or did not know it was in their gear.
Gear makers told Diane Cotter that there were only trace amounts of PFAS and that it was safe. “I was attacked by firefighters when discussing the idea that chemicals in the gear could be causing cancer,” she said.
Cotter sent patches of gear to Graham Peaslee, a University of Notre Dame professor who studies PFAS, for testing.
“It was loaded with PFAS. That was the first eye-opening moment that there may be more than just trace amounts,” said Peaslee, who also found the chemicals on gloves and in firehouse dust.
“They come off and they pose risks,” he said.
Courtney Carignan, an exposure scientist and epidemiologist at Michigan State University, said she found PFAS at twice the levels of the general population in the blood of more than half of the 18 firefighters she tested in Nantucket and Fall River, Massachusetts. She also found that PFAS in gear was transferred to the skin of firefighters.
But Carignan is still investigating how much the gear contributed to increased levels of PFAS in the blood and whether PFAS exposure may be causing or contributing to cancer.
“Even though we know PFAS is in the gear, we still don’t know how much exposure that is,” she said.
Firefighters take action
The revelation of PFAS in the gear sparked a campaign by firefighters to find safer alternatives and to hold companies responsible.
Lawsuits on behalf of firefighters argue they were exposed to significant PFAS levels and companies knew the gear contained PFAS and that it can cause serious health problems. The suits also allege companies misrepresented their products as safe.
The IAFF, which represents more than 340,000 U.S. and Canadian firefighters, decided in 2021 to no longer accept sponsorships or advertising from the chemical industry and to oppose PFAS in turnout gear.
Seven states including Washington, New Hampshire and New York passed bills requiring companies to disclose PFAS in their gear, according to Safer States, a coalition of environmental health groups.
Colorado passed a restrictive bill in 2019
Several more states introduced or enacted bills this year that provide funds to purchase PFAS-free gear or prohibit manufacture or sale of gear containing the chemicals, according to Emily Sampson, an environment policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Congressional lawmakers, too, have been focused on the issue for the past few years.
“I’ve spoken to firefighters about PFAS in their equipment, and the research has shown that we must address this,” Aurora Congressperson Jason Crow said in a statement. “As a member of the PFAS Task Force, I voted to pass the PFAS Action Act, mandating the EPA to issue stronger guidelines for minimizing the risk of exposure to PFAS from equipment and fire fighting foam. I’ll continue supporting efforts to crack down on the use of PFAS chemicals and protect our heroes’ health.”
No easy fix
For most fire departments, there is no easy fix. Replacing gear is expensive — one set can cost upward of $4,000 — and finding alternatives has proven challenging. Some companies are promoting a PFAS-free outer layer but that doesn’t solve the problem because the other two layers still contain PFAS, the IAFF said.
Oughton said that Aurora Fire Rescue is searching for gear free of PFAS that firefighters can wear to calls that don’t require multi-layered suits.
“The short answer is that, right now, 100% of structural turnout gear contains forever chemicals of some kind,” Oughton said. “There’s a real sense of urgency for us first to ask the manufacturers to produce gear without these forever chemicals and second to find gear alternatives for our firefighters in the interim for everything other than structure fires.”
Among the hurdles, according to a IAFF lawsuit filed in March, is that the National Fire Protection Association or NFPA standard for gear can only be met with PFAS-infused material. The suit accuses the NFPA of working with several gear makers to maintain that requirement. It seeks damages and an end to the standard.
Chris Dubay, NFPA vice president and chief engineer, said in a statement that the standard “does not specify or require the use of any particular materials, chemicals or treatments for that gear.” He said the group has no “special agreements or relationships with any company or organization” in development of standards.
“The manufacturers who are producing this gear owe it to the fire service to come up with an alternative,” Brockton Fire Chief Brian Nardelli, who has heard of companies promoting gear with less PFAS but is reluctant to buy it for his 231-member department without more proof.
Instead, his department tries to limit firefighter exposure to gear that’s been integral to firefighter identity. They would take it everywhere, including charity events. Now, Brockton discourages firefighters from wearing turnout gear in living quarters and encourages them to wash it after fires. It’s stored on trucks and is only to be worn for serious calls like fires and car accidents.
“Guys have seen everyone who has gotten cancer, guys dying from cancer,” said William Hill, the president of the Brockton Fire Fighters Local 144 who was successfully treated for testicular cancer. “Being told that PFAS is in the gear, guys don’t want to take the chance of being overexposed.”
Oughton said Aurora Fire Rescue is preparing to ask for $800,000 to $1 million in funding through the federal Assistance to Firefighters Grants Program that would be used for ultrasound cancer screenings as well as acquiring single-layer firefighting gear to be used on calls other than structure fires.
While Pulliam said his union helps members report information about exposures and cancer diagnoses to the IAFF, Oughton said Aurora and other cities are still figuring out how to fully quantify the problem of cancer among first responders while respecting their privacy.
“I don’t think we have a robust system for tracking cancer in our agency. I don’t think the nation’s fire service has figured that out,” Oughton said. “But unfortunately, cancer is real for firefighters, and there are members walking around right now who have cancer right now who don’t know it.”