No doubt you have heard about cancer-causing perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) being in the fabric of your turnout gear—even when it comes from the factory.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PFAS in the human body can cause low infant birth weights, a reduced immune system, cancer, and thyroid hormone disruption. It has been a hot topic on social media. Is it true that PFAS are in new turnout gear? The answer is yes and no. Prior to 2006, it was. But in 2006, the EPA issued voluntary guidelines to reduce PFAS. It is believed that all the U.S. manufacturers complied with this restriction.
First things first: There is ample evidence to show that there are far, far more PFAS present in a working structure fire than in new turnout gear. Yet, many in the fire service who are screaming the loudest about PFAS in their gear from the manufacturer are reluctant to clean their gear after every fire. Go figure. It’s always easier to blame others than to take personal or organizational responsibility.
PFAS are classified by the EPA as an emerging contaminant nationally. The most notable expert in this field today is Dr. Graham Peaslee with Notre Dame University. He gave a presentation on the subject at FDIC International 2019. He was very quick to point out that PFAS are in many common everyday items we use such as nonstick cookware, candy wrappers, and carpet. He specifically mentioned they are in the bags used for microwave popcorn. PFAS can enter the body through various means, including ingestion by contaminated food and water, absorption through the skin, and inhaling dust.
He was also very up front in saying that we don’t know enough yet to make many definitive decisions on how to mitigate any issues. He said we will know a lot more in a couple of years once ongoing research is complete. Even then, we likely won’t have all the answers.
Now back to that question about PFAS still being in new turnout gear and the answer of “yes and no.” PFAS have perfluorinated carbon chains ranging from C4 to C24 in length. The EPA’s PFA Stewardship Program focused on reducing the longer chains, C8 or greater, since existing data shows that shorter chain compounds have a lower potential for toxicity and bioaccumulation. U.S. manufacturers quit using the C8 and higher chains around 2007. The lower chains still exist, but the more potent C8 and higher chains have not been used in more than 10 years. Peaslee stated that we still need to learn more about the lower chains and any adverse impacts they may have.
Peaslee is far more concerned with groundwater and surface water contamination from PFAS than he currently is with turnout gear. PFAS will survive for 200 years and should not be put in landfills. Water contamination with PFAS is already a concern in parts of the country, especially in Michigan.
The fire service and the military are already culprits in groundwater contamination. C8 and greater chains were in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF). Many of us remember when 3M was a prominent, if not the largest, manufacturer of foam, and it ceased production in 2002 because of PFAS. Other manufacturers are saying they have since eliminated the longer chains. I understand the military, or at least parts of it, has quit using AFFF for training purposes.
So, what does Peaslee recommend we do now? Two things:
- Wash new turnout gear before wearing it. This is simply a just-in-case scenario.
- Incinerate gear once it is no longer serviceable. PFAS will be destroyed when exposed to 800°F. Gear should not be sent to less developed countries where it will likely eventually end up in a landfill. It should never be put in landfills for potential groundwater contamination. He stressed that the fire service should not be accused of further contaminating our groundwater.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) technical committee responsible for NFPA 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, has a task group aggressively looking at the issue of PFAS and any other chemicals that might cause cancer and might be in the personal protective equipment we use. It should also be noted that many countries are now putting restrictions on the use of PFAS in their manufacturing processes. And, the EPA reports that many PFAS are no longer used in manufacturing in the United States. But, they remain common in a few other countries.
PFAS seem to be a classic case of the more we learn, the more we need to learn. As emergency responders, we need to monitor the situation, do what we can to reduce the risks, but not overreact in an emotional manner in the digital world.
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 34-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.).