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For generations, firefighters have put their lives on the line. From burns and smoke inhalation to physical injuries and mental trauma, they have endured it all.

But what many may not realize is that the very tools they use to combat flames – their firefighting gear – might be silently exposing them to a different kind of danger: “forever chemicals.”

These “forever chemicals,” also known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), are a group of synthetic chemicals resistant to degradation. They are found in a wide range of equipment, including firefighting gear, due to their ability to repel water and oil.

Unfortunately, PFAS exposure has been linked to several serious health risks, including multiple types of cancer, liver disorders, and immune system suppression. This raises significant concerns for firefighters, who may be exposed to these chemicals for extended periods during training and fire emergencies.

Understanding PFAS and Their Health Risks

According to CompTox, a chemical database maintained by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl) is a class of nearly 15,000 artificial compounds. These chemicals contain carbon-fluorine bonds which are resistant to heat, water, grease, and oil. This makes them ideal for fire suppression.

PFAS are typically applied to the outer layer of firefighting gear to provide water and flame resistance. Although effective at extinguishing fuel fires, these chemicals accumulate in the body and environment and are virtually indestructible. PFAS exposure can occur through various pathways, including:

  • Direct contact: Skin contact with contaminated gear is a primary route of exposure.
  • Inhalation: PFAS can be released into the air during fire training or firefighting activities, potentially leading to inhalation exposure.
  • Ingestion: Sweat can transfer PFAS from the gear to the face and hands, increasing the risk of ingestion.

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, exposure to PFAS can cause a range of health issues, such as cancers, reproductive and developmental defects, hormonal imbalances, and an increased risk of thyroid disorders and asthma. 

Research suggests that firefighters are at a higher risk of PFAS exposure compared to the general population. A study published found that volunteer firefighters had blood levels of PFAS twice as much as the general population.

The potential health consequences of this exposure are concerning. 

Studies have linked PFAS exposure to an increased risk of various cancers, such as testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Additionally, PFAS is also associated with liver damage, decreased fertility, and immune system suppression.

PFAS exposure isn’t limited to firefighters. Workers from chemical manufacturing plants, airports and airlines, and petroleum plants where AFFF can be used against Class B fires are also at risk.

The International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) has called for more research into the health risks of PFAS exposure and for the development of harmless alternatives to PFAS-containing products. 

If you or your dear ones were exposed to PFAS, you can file an AFFF firefighting foam lawsuit. You might also be eligible for compensation if you’re suffering from health issues related to PFAS exposure. Contact a local AFFF attorney who specializes in toxic tort, chemical exposure, and personal injury lawsuits to further discuss your case.

How to Minimize the Risk of Exposure?

Many states like California, Colorado, New Hampshire, New York, and Washington have begun phasing out PFAS-containing foams. However, exemptions often still permit their use on bulk fuel blazes.

While the dangers of PFAS are real, there are steps firefighters can take to minimize their exposure and protect their health:

  • Choose PFAS-free gear whenever possible: Some manufacturers now offer PFAS-free alternatives for firefighting gear. While they might be pricier, the long-term benefits outweigh the initial investment.
  • Implement proper cleaning and decontamination protocols: Regularly cleaning gear according to the manufacturer’s instructions and the NFPA 1851 standards can help reduce PFAS buildup. Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) cleaning should be only done by Verified Independent Service Providers (ISPs). 

    Additionally, use designated cleaning areas and equipment to prevent cross-contamination.
  • Follow best practices for handling and storing equipment: According to Torhoerman Law, the half-life of PFAS can go as high as 8 years. Hence, avoiding unnecessary contact with the outer layer of the gear, especially after fire emergencies, is crucial. 

    Store gear properly in designated areas and ensure proper ventilation to prevent off-gassing of PFAS. 
  • Advocate for safer alternatives: As firefighters, you have a powerful voice. Advocate for the use of safer alternatives to PFAS-containing products in the firefighting industry. Your voice can make a difference in protecting yourself and your dear ones.

In conclusion, the fight against AFFFs and PFAS is not an individual one but rather a collective and systemic one.

However, by understanding the risks, taking action to protect yourself, and supporting advocacy efforts, firefighters can play a vital role in creating a safer future for themselves and their communities. By using alternative foam and gear materials and implementing proper decontamination procedures, you can reduce your risk of exposure to PFAS. 

Moving forward, firefighters must stand together with advocates to enact standards and policies that respect their well-being. The message is clear – no longer can the law overlook lives lost from PFAS chemical exposures in the line of duty.

Remember, your health and well-being are paramount, and taking proactive steps is essential to ensure you remain protected in the face of this invisible threat.

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