Congress seeks to spend more than $100 million to rid  ‘forever chemicals’ from firefighters’ protective gear


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Jun 17, 2023

Congress seeks to spend more than $100 million to rid ‘forever chemicals’ from firefighters’ protective gear

A once-obscure health risk for firefighters in Philadelphia and across the United States is now a front-burner issue in Congress. U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.) and seven other congressional

A once-obscure health risk for firefighters in Philadelphia and across the United States is now a front-burner issue in Congress.

U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.) and seven other congressional lawmakers have introduced legislation that calls for more than $100 million in federal funds to be spent on the research and development of firefighting turnout gear that does not contain PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, liver damage, and a range of other illnesses.

Cancer is a leading cause of death for firefighters, who have a significantly higher chance of dying from the disease than the general U.S. population, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. A study in the Journal of Occupational Medicine, published this year, found cancer death rates among Scottish firefighters to be 1.6 times higher than the norm.

Introduced on July 20, the Protecting Firefighters and Advancing State of-the-Art Alternatives Act would require manufacturers to collaborate with firefighters on the “next-generation” turnout gear, which is meant to include indicators that warn firefighters if they’ve been exposed to hazardous materials, or if their gear needs to be decontaminated.

Fitzpatrick’s bill was introduced just two days after The Inquirer published The Burning Question, a special report which showed that firefighters were for years unaware that their protective equipment contained alarming amounts of PFAS, while the profession simultaneously experienced high numbers of cancer deaths.

“We’ve seen reports of firefighters being harmed by the gear that is supposed to protect them in these high-risk situations, and I am committed to cracking down on this trend,” Fitzpatrick wrote in an emailed statement.

“These first responders put their lives on the line everyday to protect our communities, and they deserve to have their health and safety prioritized. My bill will do just that.”

The congressional bill, which was cosponsored by four Democrats and four Republicans, would see the government spend $25 million a year — beginning in the 2024 fiscal year and running through 2028 — on developing the PFAS-free gear, plus an additional $2 million each year on firefighter training.

» READ MORE: The Burning Question: Firefighters’ protective gear may actually be harming them. Why are departments still using it?

On the day The Inquirer published its story, a Pennsylvania legislator also introduced a bill in the state House to hold manufacturing companies accountable for the safety products that they sell to firefighters.

State Rep. Greg Scott’s legislation would require any manufacturer of firefighters’ jackets, pants, helmets, and respiratory equipment to include warning labels on products that contain PFOS or PFOA, two types of forever chemicals, and explain why the gear contains the chemicals.

Manufacturers that ignore this requirement would face an initial $5,000 fine, which would rise to $10,000 for subsequent violations. Penalty money would to be routed to state grant programs for fire companies and emergency medical services.

The issue is a personal one for Scott, who has been a volunteer firefighter in Norristown for 20 years. Scott, a Democrat who represents the 54th Legislative District in Montgomery County, said he only recently learned that turnout gear contains PFAS.

“I had no clue,” he said. “A lot of my firefighter friends were shocked to find out it was in our gear.”

Scott’s bill was referred to the Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee. He is also a cosponsor of another House bill that seeks to ban fire departments in Pennsylvania from using firefighting foam that contains PFAS.

The International Association of Fire Fighters, which represents 334,000 members in the U.S. and Canada, has advocated for manufacturers to begin producing PFAS-free gear for firefighters.

In 2022, the names of 261 active firefighters were added to a memorial wall the union maintains; nearly two-thirds had died of cancer. The union is supportive of Fitzpatrick’s bill, and Scott’s legislation.

“Chemical companies, which have known for years about the cancer-causing properties of PFAS, have seen increased profits while fire fighters face repeated exposure to the toxins in our gear,” said Ed Kelly, the IAFF’s president.

“The PFAS Alternatives Act can change this sad fact by putting fire fighters — not corporate interests — at the center of the research for next-generation gear, guaranteeing we have a voice in developing the products we rely on for safety.”

Firefighters might not have known about the potential risks posed by the chemicals in their turnout gear were it not for Diane Cotter, whose husband — a Worcester, Mass., firefighter — developed prostate cancer in 2014. After researching her husband’s illness, Cotter began sending emails to scientists, lawmakers, and union leaders, warning about the dangers of PFAS exposure.

In 2018, Graham Peaslee, a University of Notre Dame physicist, tested 43 different pieces of turnout gear. He told The Inquirer that he found the highest levels of PFAS that he’d ever seen in a textile; some of the chemicals even glommed onto the hands of Peaslee’s students.

The chemicals have been found on all three layers of the turnout gear that firefighters wear when they battle blazes.

Some municipalities have, in recent years, purchased gear that doesn’t contain PFAS on the innermost layers. And earlier this year, a Canadian-based manufacturer called Steadfast announced that it developed a PFAS-free moisture barrier, which rests in between the gear’s inner and outer layers.

The Kenney administration previously told The Inquirer that the city hasn’t found low-PFAS gear that would provide firefighters “with the same level of protection that they get from their current gear.”

Mike Bresnan, the president of Philadelphia’s IAFF Local 22, has advised firefighters to seal their turnout gear in trash bags if they have to transport it, and to avoid taking the equipment into their homes. He praised Fitzpatrick’s legislation.

“In an unprecedented polarized political arena,” Bresnan said, “it’s great to see lawmakers from both sides working together to support firefighters and paramedics who swore and abide by an oath to protect others.”

Chemical companies have, for decades, used PFAS to manufacture a range of everyday items, from nonstick cookware to stain-resistant carpets and artificial turf. The chemicals remain in the environment and the human body for years.

In March, the EPA called for legally enforceable limits on six widely used PFAS that have contaminated water systems across the U.S. — and are considered unsafe to drink at virtually any level — saying it hopes to prevent “thousands of deaths.”

Fitzpatrick, who cochairs a bipartisan Congressional PFAS Task Force, said legislators “must continue to push for a whole-of-government plan to bolster research, regulations, and solutions to the presence of these forever chemicals.”