What needs to be done to limit PFAS exposure for firefighters

The bunker gear that they wear everyday is consumed with PFAS, which then absorbs into their skin.
Published: Oct. 4, 2022 at 9:06 AM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - PFAS, or per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are not a new concept to firefighters because they have been an issue for many years. The bunker gear that they wear everyday is consumed with PFAS, which then absorbs into their skin.

When idle, bunker gear isn’t very harmful. But when heated, which may occur when battling a fire, the chemical activates and is then absorbed into the skin. Studies have shown that these chemicals may lead to cancer or other life-threatening diseases.

Globally, 75 percent of firefighters whose names appeared on the International Firefighters Association’s (IAFF) Memorial Wall between 2015-2020 died of cancer, according to the IAFF.

Firefighters know what they sign up for when it comes to risky situations, but PFAS shouldn’t be one of the problems by simply wearing their uniform.

Alex Fantauzzi, Wilmington Fire Department Lieutenant and President of the Firefighters Association detailed what steps need to be made nationally in order to make a change.

“From a firefighter’s perspective, what we’re hoping to see is a change in our cancer screening processes. Adding that to our annual physical and an overall more in-depth cancer screening as well. It’s trying to mitigate our exposures until they find a replacement chemical or additive to put in our gear, because right now, any gear manufactured has PFAS in it,” Fantauzzi said.

For the past 20 to 30 years, firefighters have been wearing the same gear. Years of use may result in advanced PFAS exposure levels.

Until PFAS free gear is an industry standard, it will be hard to keep our first responders safe from this “forever chemical.”

The Fire Chief of Training and Safety of Wilmington, Donald Burns, is taking steps to protect his first responders from PFAS as much as he can.

“Right now, we’re trying to take it where if we have to train then we’ll train without the gear if possible, but that’s not always possible. We’re trying to limit the exposure of being in our gear that way we don’t have the higher absorption rates of getting PFAS,” Burns said.

Although limiting the usage of bunker gear will help prevent extra exposure to the chemicals, it’s not enough to fully protect firefighters health.