Many of you are aware of the recent talk of perfluorooctanoic acids (PFOAs) causing cancer among firefighters. The talk has basically been in the social media circles.
The primary purpose of this column is to provide a brief overview of PFOAs and then address, in more detail, the totally inaccurate statement in an article that reads: “Of the 16 voting members on the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, committee, 10 are manufacturers. The others are made up of scientists, special experts, and one or two firefighters/chiefs.”
First just a brief comment about PFOAs. They are found in many products, including nonstick cookware, food packaging, carpet, upholstery, and consumer clothing. They have been found in water supplies and dust in homes. Now that the science is known, PFOAs are being eliminated in many manufacturing processes. They were used in firefighter personal protective equipment (PPE), but this practice has also been discontinued. Is it possible that a firefighter could have or might have contracted cancer from the PFOAs in his PPE? It is extremely unlikely, considering all the other more likely carcinogenic exposures, such as failure to wear the self-contained breathing apparatus face piece through overhaul completion, dirty PPE, diesel exhaust, and eating food prepared in certain treated nonstick cookware. The PFOAs used in firefighting PPE are the same as those used in bulletproof vests. I am not aware of a cancer epidemic among law enforcement or military personnel. For more information, please read the article published by the International Association of Fire Fighters in May titled, “PFOA and Turnout Gear.” It is an excellent source of balanced information.
NFPA Technical Committee Control
Now to the inaccurate statement referenced above. The clear insinuation is that the manufacturers control the technical committees. The statement and implication are wrong. As of this writing, there are 34 principal members of the technical committee and 30 alternate members. Alternate members can only vote in the absence of the principal member for whom they are an alternate. The roster is available to the public on the NFPA Web site. It can be found by doing a search for “NFPA 1971.” Click on the first link that pops up, then click on “Technical Committee.” From there you can find the roster.
Each member of an NFPA technical committee is assigned a classification. There are nine classifications:
- Applied research/testing laboratory.
- Enforcing authority.
- Special Expert.
No more than one-third of the committee members can be from one classification.
In theory, fire service personnel can come from all classifications except manufacturer. Of the 34 principal members on the NFPA 1971 technical committee, 14 are current or retired fire department members. Eight of the members are classified as manufacturers. Members who perform PPE maintenance and repair are considered installer/maintainers. There are members who represent independent testing such as Underwriters Laboratories, the Safety Equipment Institute, the military, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. All these classifications bring expertise to the table that the fire service must have to develop effective design and performance standards.
I will not bore you with the detailed process of the governing rules of NFPA standards development. However, I can say that almost all NFPA technical committees that apply to the fire service (106 and growing) are chaired by a fire service member. The chair of the committee responsible for NFPA 1971 and NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, is a retired safety chief with the FDNY. When his tenure expires, rest assured his replacement will be a fire service person. The NFPA staff liaison to the committee is a former firefighter.
A key point to the development of NFPA standards is the work that goes on with task groups. For example, the NFPA 1971 technical committee will have anywhere from six to 12 task groups working continually on specific focus areas. Task groups are appointed by the committee chair (a fire service person), and each task group has a chair. With only the rarest of exceptions, the chair of the task groups is always a fire service person.
Will manufacturers occasionally try to use the standards development process to help advance or protect their particular product? If so, the fire service can quickly sense this approach and will “shoot it down.” There are some very reputable people in the manufacturing sector, especially PPE, who are totally focused on the safety of the customers. It’s their business! I can say without any hesitation that manufacturers do not drive the standards development process when it comes to PPE. Changes (and there need to be a lot more) are driven by the fire service, and rarely will a manufacturer vote against the fire service if the fire service is united in the change being sought. I can say this having been directly involved with the committee for almost 30 years.
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.).