By Hiroko Tabuchi © The New York Times Co.
Every day at work for 15 years, Sean Mitchell, a captain in the Nantucket Fire Department in Massachusetts, has put on the bulky suit that protects him from the heat and flames he faces on the job. But last year, he and his team came across unsettling research: Toxic chemicals on the very equipment meant to protect their lives could instead be making them gravely ill.
This week, Mitchell and other members of the International Association of Fire Fighters, the nation’s largest firefighters union, are demanding that union officials take action. They want independent tests of PFAS, the chemicals in their gear, and for the union to rid itself of sponsorships from equipment makers and the chemical industry. In the next few days, delegates representing the union’s more than 300,000 members are expected to vote on the measure — a first. “We’re exposed to these chemicals every day,” Mitchell said. “And the more I looked into it, the more it felt like the only people who were saying these chemicals were safe were the people who make it.”
The demands come as the safety of firefighters has become an urgent concern amid the worsening effects of climate change, which bring rising temperatures that prime the nation for increasingly devastating fires. In October, two dozen firefighters in California — where a record 4.2 million acres burned across the state last year — filed suit against 3M, Chemours, E.I. du Pont de Nemours and other manufacturers, claiming that the companies for decades knowingly made and sold firefighting equipment loaded with toxic chemicals without warning of the chemicals’ risks.
“Firefighting is a dangerous occupation, and we don’t want our firefighters to burn up. They need that protection,” said Linda Birnbaum, the former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences. “But we now know that PFAS is in their gear, and it doesn’t stay in their gear.”
“A lot of it migrates out and gets into the air that they’re breathing, and it’s on their hands and their bodies,” Birnbaum added. “If they take their gear home to wash, they’re bringing PFAS back to their families.”
DuPont said it was “disappointed” with firefighters’ seeking to ban sponsorships and that its commitment to the profession was “unwavering.”
3M said it had “acted responsibly” on PFAS and remained committed to working with the union. Chemours declined to comment.
The risks of chemicals in firefighting equipment may seem to pale in comparison to the deadly flames, smoke-filled buildings or forest infernos that firefighters brave on the job. But over the past three decades, cancer has emerged as the leading cause of death for firefighters across the country, making up 75% of activeduty firefighter deaths in 2019.
Studies undertaken by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have found that firefighters have a 9% higher risk of getting cancer and a 14% higher risk of dying from the disease than the general U.S. population. Firefighters are most at risk for testicular cancer, mesothelioma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Rates haven’t declined, health experts point out, even though firefighters in the United States now use air packs similar to scuba gear to protect themselves from a fire’s toxic fumes.
“It’s not the traditional line-of-duty death, the firefighter falling through the floor or the roof collapsing on us,” said Jim Burneka, a firefighter in Dayton, Ohio, who also runs Firefighter Cancer Consultants, which works with fire departments across the country to reduce cancer risks to their staffs. “It’s a new kind of line-of-duty death.”