December 10, 2020

Firefighters Fear Their Protective Gear Could Cause Cancer: Bloomberg Report

PFAS in Firefighter Gear Alleged to Cause Health Complications

A new report indicates firefighters could be at risk of developing severe health problems from not only firefighting foam but their protective gear too. Bloomberg Law reports firefighters’ “bunker gear” contains large quantities of chemicals called PFAS, or Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS has been linked to numerous health problems including liver, kidney, and prostate cancer.

“No one had ever heard of it before,” said Paul Cotter, a former firefighter, of PFAS in firefighting gear. Cotter was diagnosed with prostate cancer after a 28-year career as a firefighter.

Cotter faced numerous dangers on the job as a firefighter, from collapsing buildings to heat exhaustion. However, when Cotter was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, further research indicated PFAS in firefighting gear may be to blame for his cancer.

PFAS are manmade chemicals designed to resist grease, oil, water, and heat, making them ideal for firefighting gear. However, health officials like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked PFAS exposure to a number of health complications like lower infant birth weights, increased cholesterol levels, and cancer.

Nuclear Physicist Graham Peaslee was requested by Cotter’s wife to investigate whether Cotter’s firefighting gear had a link to cancer. Peaslee, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, found through his research that firefighter textiles had “high levels of total fluorine.” Total fluorine is a major component of PFAS.

“There’s no question there’s PFAS in the gear,” nuclear physicist Graham Peaslee said. “Now it’s a question of whether it’s getting into firefighters’ bodies and accumulating there.”

PFAS have been added to aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), which is frequently used by firefighters to fight fires in training and on-the-job scenarios. Recent lawsuits and newly enforced legislation have focused on the dangers of PFAS in firefighting foam, working to place regulations on PFAS and pursue further research on the health impacts of PFAS exposure.

Over the last few years, many former firefighters and individuals exposed to firefighting foam have filed claims against AFFF manufacturers, claiming exposure to PFAS in firefighting foam caused their cancer diagnosis. While many of the lawsuits filed over PFAS contamination call out firefighting foam manufacturers for negligence, only a few are seeking damages against turnout gear manufacturers.

“There’s a lot of PFAS chemicals out there, and there are many that we really don’t know what effects they have,” said University of Arizona researcher Jefferey Burgess. Burgess is leading one of the two federally funded studies on PFAS.

Companies who manufacture gear containing PFAS assert their gear is safe for use, denying any wrongdoing. A spokesperson for 3M Scott Fire & Safety said the company “uses limited quantities of certain fluoropolymers in components of firefighter protective equipment.”

“3M’s products have been tested and assessed to help assure their safety for their intended uses,” Sean Lynch, a spokesperson for 3M, said.

However, further studies prompted by these allegations may prove that PFAS exposure from firefighting gear is toxic to human health. Attorneys representing victims of firefighting gear cancer indicate there is a substantial causational link between PFAS in their clients’ firefighting gear and cancer.

“We think it’s going to bring about change in the industry, and ideally give them compensation for their injuries,” said Elizabeth Pritzker, an attorney with Pritzker Levine LLP, which represents two dozen firefighters filing claims in California against foam makers and manufacturers of firefighting protective gear. Each of Pritzker's clients was diagnosed with cancer (nine of them with prostate cancer like Paul Cotter) and had higher than average levels of PFAS in their blood.

“We just need more people to know about it and to demand change,” Cotter said about PFAS in firefighting protective gear. “We can change it. We can make the fire service a little bit safer.”

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