Firefighters willingly put their lives on the line to protect their communities from fire, hazardous materials, and other dangerous situations. But most never expect that one of the greatest risks they face would come from the protective gear they wear and the materials they use to put out fires.
Cancer in Firefighters
Cancer has long been a leading cause of death in firefighters. Beginning in 2010, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) undertook a years-long study involving tens of thousands of firefighters who had worked in the profession at different points and for different lengths of time across a 60-year period. Researchers found that firefighters had a 9% greater chance of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14% greater chance of dying of cancer than the general population.
In the wake of this study, Ohio lawmakers created a presumption that firefighters who had been exposed for a minimum period of time and were diagnosed with cancer had contracted cancer on the job. This cleared the path for firefighters with cancer to receive Ohio workers’ compensation benefits.
With the exception of mesothelioma, a rare cancer known to be tied to asbestos, that study didn’t draw conclusions about which of the many potentially toxic or hazardous substances firefighters are exposed to causes or contributes to the increased risk of cancer. In fact, one recommendation that came out of the study was that fire departments should increase efforts to educate firefighters about protective measures such as proper use of protective gear.
Ironically, however, we now have reason to believe that protective gear is a significant source of the cancer-causing exposure, because it contains per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
The link between PFAS and cancer isn’t newly discovered. In 2017, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified PFAS as a possible carcinogen. Other studies followed that found increased risks of many cancers, including kidney, testicular, thyroid, and potentially others.
PFAS exposure has also been tied to a wide range of other health problems, including liver damage, thyroid disorders, hypersensitive skin disorder, high cholesterol, obesity, and fertility problems.
How are Firefighters Exposed to PFAS?
PFAS is sometimes described as a “forever chemical” because it does not break down in nature. Human beings can be exposed to PFAS in a variety of ways, including inhalation, ingestion, and dermal/skin exposure. Firefighters are at particular risk due to fire-suppressing foam and turnout gear.
PFAS in Fire Suppressants
Firefighters are regularly exposed to PFAS in fire-suppressing foam.
A 2019 report by the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) concluded that firefighters using aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) had unacceptably elevated blood levels of PFAS chemicals. These chemicals have a wider impact, too, including contamination of groundwater in areas where this type of suppressant is used.
Several states have banned certain other uses of PFAS, including in food packaging. A few have banned the manufacture, sale, and use of firefighting foam that contains PFAS. However, most—including Ohio—have not. That’s likely because AFFF is exceptionally effective. Still, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) sees the situation as urgent enough that they’re aiming to make the switch by 2023. And Attorneys General in several states, including Ohio, have sued manufacturers of products containing PFAS.
PFAS in Turnout Gear
“Turnout gear” refers to the protective equipment a firefighter wears to respond to a call. One core component of that gear is heat-resistant clothing. The gear allows firefighters to withstand high temperatures near a fire and it protects against hazards like falling embers. But it also presents a big risk.
In 2020, researchers at Notre Dame’s Nuclear Science Laboratory examined 30 samples of firefighter personal protective equipment (PPE). The gear tested came from six different manufacturers and included both used and unused items.
Researchers found extensive integration or application of PFAS chemicals in two of the three layers of the gear.
While the thermal layer, which is closest to the skin, wasn’t constructed with PFAS, these chemicals migrate. They can travel from the moisture barrier (middle layer) to the layer that comes in direct contact with the firefighter. Researchers also noted that skin contamination may occur simply by handling outer layers of the gear.
Still, the vast majority of U.S. fire departments continue to use gear containing PFAS, and in some areas it is the only type of gear available that meets current standards.
PFAS Cancer Lawsuits: Plevin & Gallucci Helps Lead Efforts for Victims
Firefighters around the country and surviving family members of firefighters lost to cancer have filed lawsuits against many manufacturers of AFFF and turnout gear, claiming the manufacturers were aware of the risks PFAS chemicals posed to those wearing the gear and working with the fire suppressant materials, but failed to disclose those risks.
As these cases became more prevalent, victims around the county began filing cases. For judicial efficiency, the courts decided that one judge in South Carolina would oversee all of the litigation. Once that judge was assigned, a Plaintiffs’ Executive Committee was established and Plevin & Gallucci partner, Frank Gallucci, was selected to be a member. Through his work on this committee, Frank is helping lead the efforts on behalf of PFAS cancer victims across the country.
PFAS Cancer Lawsuits: How to File Your Claim
If you have been diagnosed with cancer after working as a firefighter and being exposed to PFAS in your gear or the fire suppressant materials you used, or if you have lost a firefighter family member to cancer, you may be entitled to compensation.
Here are a few things you should know about your potential PFAS claim:
- Determining and demonstrating when the statute of limitations began to run on this type of case can be complicated. The sooner you speak to an experienced Ohio attorney who is handling PFAS cases, the better. Don’t lose your right to recovery due to bad timing.
- Chemical exposure cases are complex and require the assistance of highly qualified expert witnesses. With a large number of cases involved and related claims based on public exposure, the defendants have every incentive to fight hard. It’s extremely important that you work with a law firm like Plevin & Gallucci that has the knowledge, experience, resources, and expert network necessary to take on major corporations in a complicated case.
At Plevin & Gallucci, we’ve been representing people harmed by negligence and defective products for more than 50 years. We’ve recovered hundreds of millions of dollars for our clients and played a key role in the landmark Cuyahoga County opioid litigation against Purdue Pharma and others, and in the bellwether case holding retail pharmacies accountable for their part in the opioids crisis.