Unsuccessful Attempt to Eliminate PFAS in PPE

"I hope the research and testing needed to address this issue now move to 'warp-speed' as soon as possible."
This past summer, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Technical Committee responsible for NFPA 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, voted on a Tentative Interim Amendment (TIA) to eliminate a light degradation test for moisture barriers.

If this test were eliminated, it would open the door to eliminate PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that can contribute to liver damage, high cholesterol, obesity, cancer, thyroid disease, reduced fertility, and hormone suppression.

The TIA did not receive the necessary number of votes to pass. Four of the fire service representatives who voted did not vote for it. Only one of the fire service representatives supported it. Unfortunately, and inexplicably, six fire service representatives did not vote. The primary reason given for not supporting the TIA was unintended consequences.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a voting member of the technical committee and I voted against the TIA. As I stated in my substantiation for the vote, I do not feel good about not supporting it. On the other hand, if I supported the TIA, I would not have felt good about that decision either. The main reason I do not support the TIA was the same reason the other fire service representative voted that way—unintended consequences. The technical committee was faced with a choice of eliminating one health hazard and possibly bringing on other health hazards, which could be more hazardous. The cure cannot be worse than the disease.

The reason PFAS are used in PPE moisture barriers is to increase the durability. There are products on the market that do not have PFAS that might be durable, but they likely add tremendous heat stress to the firefighter. The light degradation test was put into the standard approximately 20 years ago to address known failures of one moisture barrier that was on the market at the time. Though not an ideal test, it has more or less served its purpose. The fire service MUST have durable PPE.

Everyone wants to get rid of PFAS. They have been referred to as the “forever chemical” as apparently the only way to eliminate them is incineration. Since hardly anyone, if anyone, is incinerating their PPE when it is retired, it is a known fact that these “forever chemicals” are getting into ground water. No one knows how many firefighters get cancer from the PFAS in their PPE. No one knows what the impact on durability will be if this test is removed.

PFAS have received a lot of chatter on social media with claims that our PPE is causing cancer. Remember, fire service PPE comes from the factory with PFAS in them. How dangerous are those chemicals in our PPE? They are harmful. How many of those dangerous chemicals actually enter a firefighter’s body? No one knows the answer to that question.

It must be stated that PFAS are found in an abundance of areas with which firefighters come in contact. This includes water-repellent and nonstick products like cookware, carpet, leather and apparel, textiles, paper, paint, cleaning products, pizza boxes, and packaging materials. They are also found in food.

Also, consider this—the companies that make our turnout gear have employees who are in almost constant contact with the gear eight hours a day, every workday of the year. They are cutting, sewing, seam sealing, and handling the gear far more in a week than most firefighters would in several years. And the employees of ISPs (Independent Service Providers) who clean and repair PPE are exposed in a similar fashion. It would seem with that amount of exposure, there would be an epidemic of cancer among those people. There is not. Regardless, we need to eliminate PFAS as soon as possible without compromising the protective and durability properties of PPE.

I hope the research and testing needed to address this issue now move to “warp-speed” as soon as possible. The Technical Committee is aware of research being conducted by Dr. Bryan Ormond at N.C. State University. On April 27, 2021, the EPA Administrator Michael Regan called for the creation of a new “EPA Council on PFAS” that is charged with building on the agency’s ongoing work to better understand and ultimately reduce the potential risks caused by these chemicals. Finally, the NFPA has a task group aggressively pursuing avenues to eliminate PFAS without compromising other firefighter health and safety concerns.

ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board. His 40-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Education Resource Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).

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