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Firefighters Battle an Unseen Hazard: Their Gear Could Be Toxic

The Biden administration has said it would make PFAS a priority. In campaign documents, President Biden pledged to designate PFAS as a hazardous substance to make manufacturers and other polluters pay for cleanup, and set a national drinking water standard for the chemical. New York, Maine and Washington have moved to ban PFAS from food packaging, and other bans are in the works.

There’s a need to drive PFAS out of everyday products, like food and cosmetics, textiles, carpets,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit group that works on environmental health. “Firefighters are disproportionately exposed, on top of all that.”

Lt. Ron Glass, president of the Orlando Professional Firefighters union, who has been a firefighter for a quarter-century, has lost two of his peers to cancer in the past year. “When I first got hired, the leading cause of death was a line-of-duty fire accident, then it was heart attacks,” he said. “Now it’s all cancers.”

“Initially, everybody blamed the different materials burning, or the foam. Then we started digging a little deeper into it and started looking at our bunker gear,” he said. “The manufacturers initially told us there’s nothing wrong, there’s nothing harmful at all. But it turns out there’s PFAS not only on the outer shell, but in the interior lining, which goes against our skin.”

Lieutenant Glass and his colleagues are now pressing the International Association of Fire Fighters, which represents firefighters and paramedics in the United States as well as Canada, to run further tests. Their formal resolution, submitted to this week to the union’s annual convention, also asks the union to work with manufacturers to develop safer alternatives.

Captain Mitchell, meanwhile, is pressing the union to refuse future sponsorships from chemicals and equipment manufacturers, money he feels has slowed action on the issue. In 2018, the union received about $200,000 from companies including the fabrics manufacturer W.L. Gore and equipment maker MSA Safety, records show.