In the past few years, we’ve all gotten an education in personal protective equipment (PPE) and how important it can be in keeping people in certain professions healthy–and even alive. There may be no profession more reliant on protective gear than firefighters, who are often called upon to enter environments the human body was not designed to withstand.
Clearly, effective PPE is critical. But in recent years, the high rate of certain cancers in firefighters has led researchers to take a closer look at their exposures. It turns out that one key risk firefighters face in terms of toxic exposure comes from their turnout gear–the very equipment intended to protect them.
What is Turnout Gear?
Turnout gear (sometimes also called “bunker gear”) is the protective suit and accessories firefighters wear on fire calls. A set of turnout gear typically includes pants, a coat, a hood, boots, gloves, and helmet.
A key component in turnout gear is a material called Nomex–a flame-resistant material that can withstand temperatures of up to 1600 degrees Fahrenheit. Nomex is commonly used in the moisture barrier and outer shell.
This protective gear allows firefighters to do their jobs in buildings and outdoor areas far too hot for an unprotected body to withstand. The flame-resistant gear also protects firefighters against contact injuries and being burned by falling embers.
Unfortunately, recent studies suggest that it may also be causing cancer in firefighters.
What’s Wrong with Turnout Gear?
The danger of heat-resistant firefighter gear stems from the presence of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFOA. These chemicals are part of a class commonly known as PFAS.
You may already be aware of the dangers of PFAS, since firefighting gear isn’t the only place it’s found. PFAS chemicals have been used in non-stick cookware, grease-resistant food packaging, sunscreen, personal care products, materials used to treat carpets and furniture, and more. These chemicals are sometimes described as “forever chemicals,” because they do not break down normally in nature.
PFAS chemicals are also present in the aqueous film-forming foam most departments use to suppress fires. You can learn more about how PFAS generally impacts firefighters and others exposed to it and the risks of firefighting foam that includes PFAS here.
PFAS exposure has been linked to several types of cancer, including testicular, kidney, and thyroid cancers. There is reason to believe PFAS exposure may lead to other forms of cancer as well.
How are Firefighters Exposed to PFAS Through Turnout Gear?
With wear over time and as it is exposed to stressors such as high temperatures, the material in turnout gear begins to break down. One danger, of course, is that the gear will become less effective as the layers break down. But there’s another serious risk that often comes into play before there is any obvious degradation of the gear.
As the fabric breaks down, PFAS from the moisture barrier and outer shell can migrate to the thermal layer, making direct contact with the firefighter’s skin.
Similarly, Nomex hoods that are worn under fire helmets and help protect the firefighter’s head and face from heat injuries also contain PFAS.
There are several other ways firefighters can be exposed to PFAS through their gear, including:
- A firefighter may come in contact with PFAS simply by handling the outer layer of the equipment–either due to breakdown of the materials in the fabric or because the outer layer has become contaminated with fire-suppressant foam that has dried on the surface and turned to dust.
- Turnout gear can also become contaminated as soot and ash settle on outer layers, since furniture and other items that burn in fires often contain these toxic chemicals.
One study of 15 fire stations found that dust vacuumed from areas where turnout gear was stored had higher levels of PFAS than other areas of the station. The same study also found PFAS in samples wiped from turnout gear.
What Does This Mean for Firefighters?
Firefighters who are still on the job can take some steps to protect themselves, including:
- Pushing departments to replace turnout gear with safer items as they become available–several manufacturers are working on or have developed improved items, including turnout gear that does not contain PFAS in the outer shell and hoods designed to block carcinogens as well as heat.
- Ensuring that turnout gear is professionally cleaned–one study determined that firefighters whose gear hadn’t been professionally cleaned in the previous year had higher PFAS blood levels.
- Showering when changing out of firefighting gear and washing hands after handling turnout gear and other potentially contaminated items.
- Storing turnout gear away from living and sleeping areas–since these issues have come to light, some firefighters say they don’t take turnout gear or other clothing and equipment that’s been at a fire into their homes.
Firefighters who have been diagnosed with one of the forms of cancer listed above, or families that have lost a firefighter loved one to cancer may be entitled to compensation. There are complex scientific issues in these cases, so it is important to work with a legal team like Plevin & Gallucci who has the right background and experience to manage a PFAS cancer claim.
More than three years ago, attorney Frank Gallucci was appointed to the Plaintiffs’ Executive Committee for multi-district litigation involving hundreds of claims relating to PFAS exposure from fire suppressant foam. Our firm has extensive experience with the key issues and the science involved in a PFAS case. To learn more about your rights and options, schedule a free consultation right now. Just call 855-4PLEVIN or fill out the contact form on this page.