Local firefighters speak against becoming ‘human guinea pigs’ due to PFAS exposure
NEW HANOVER COUNTY — "Who is protecting us, the firefighters, while we’re protecting the community?" Laura Leigh Bransford asked roughly 250 people at Cape Fear Community College Thursday.
READ MORE: Advocacy team urges UN to take action against PFAS pollution, citing human rights violation
Bransford, who has been a firefighter for New Hanover County for six years, was one of four panelists who spoke during a segment of the second annual State of the River. It's hosted annually by Cape Fear River Watch, a daylong event featuring experts sharing issues impacting the natural resources of the region and the work being done to address them.
Most concerns surrounded environmental issues — marine life living in the river, residents drinking from it, and industry destroying it. As PFAS pollution was the impetus for starting the event, this year's version took a different look at the dangers of the chemicals.
The final panel tackled the health and wellness of one of the "deadliest occupations" in the nation.
Last year, the World Health Organization reclassified firefighting to the highest level of occupational risk for cancer. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, firefighters have a 9% higher chance of being diagnosed with cancer than the general population; they have a 14% greater risk of dying from cancer.
The majority of cancers firefighters suffer from include testicular, prostate, bladder and kidney — similar illnesses that may be linked to exposure to PFAS, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's peer-reviewed studies. Additional health effects from the toxic chemicals could include development delays in children, autoimmune illnesses, increased cholesterol levels and reproductive issues.
Female firefighters are also 14% more likely to have miscarriages than the average population, according to the Center for Fire, Rescue and EMS Health Research.
"Firefighters have so many things stacked against them, us, when it comes to their wellness," Bransford said. "Mental health, suicide, cardiac health, sleep deprivation, cancer — just to name a few, and now the discovery of ungodly amounts of PFAS in our turnout gear in all the layers."
Bransford is one of nearly 135 firefighters in the county; the Wilmington Fire Department employs around 200.
In 2017, the wife of Massachusetts firefighter Paul Cotter set out on a mission to find out what caused her husband's prostate cancer. Diane Cotter wasn't going to accept it's "just the norm." She found portions of his turnout gear had degraded and sent samples to Graham Peaslee, a chemical physicist at the University of Notre Dame, who started studying what the turnout gear material is composed of. Diane was convinced something in the fabric could be dangerous.
Peaslee discovered the three-layer gear had some of the highest fluorinated textiles he had ever seen. The story was documented by Ethereal Films in "Burned: Protecting the Protectors," screened Thursday as well. It details the dangers of PFAS in turnout gear.
According to Chemical and Engineering News, Peaslee's team found the protective wear's outer water-resistant shell averaged just over 2% fluorine by weight — PFAS are defined as fluorinated substances. He also found the moisture barrier — the middle layer — averaged more than 30% fluorine. Research showed over time, the layers rub together and migrate to the third thermal layer, PFAS-free when new but accumulates chemicals from heat exposure of the other two layers containing harmful toxins. PFAS may then contact the skin via that third thermal layer.
So why are firefighters still using the gear?
"The simple fact is, we wear turnout gear to protect ourselves, even though it's killing us, we still have to use it for the thermal protection," New Hanover County Professional Firefighters Association president Benjamin Bobzien told the crowd.
He added no alternatives exist that are in compliance with the National Fire Protection Association, which sets federal standards for the industry.
The high heat firefighters face, up to 500 degrees, Bobzien said, leads to their gear releasing PFAS, which then gets absorbed into their bodies.
According to federal regulations, firefighters must replace turnout gear every 10 years. Wilmington Fire Department Chief Steve Mason said the city is on a more rapid schedule, changing out gear every four years.
"We’re doing what we can to minimize exposure," Mason said. "It still is an exposure and at the end of the day, we still have to wear structural firefighting gear because of the work we do."
One provision within NFPA's guidelines requires the protective uniforms to withstand certain tests. For example, the gear must be exposed to UV light for 40 hours without degrading and also pass a hydraulic oil test.
As of now, PFAS is the only material able to pass the threshold of those conditions
"These tests, in the eyes of the [International Association of Fire Fighters] and our people, say it's not necessary," Bobzien explained Thursday, meaning the level of tests required are beyond what a normal firefighter would ever endure.
The UV test was based on studies done at the University of Kentucky, according to E&E News, and financially backed by Lion Apparel — one of the top firefighter gear producers. The report details the study didn't statistically reveal significant findings showing the tests were required.
"We’ve been misinformed and lied to in thinking our turnout gear is protecting us," Bransford said at the panel. "We have a moral and ethical duty to do the right thing. We can't let policy and special interest get in the way of humanity."
The IAFF "asked nicely," according to Bobzien, to change the standards but NFPA refused. So, the IAFF filed litigation against the NFPA on March 16 for its role in imposing testing that effectively requires the use of PFAS in their protective gear. Three top "PFAS law firms" — Motley Rice LLC, Simmons Hanly Conroy LLC and Sullivan Papain Block McGrath Coffinas and Cannavo P.C. — are assisting with the case.
The IAFF's goal is to require PFAS-free gear in its regulations, and allow firefighters and their families to seek compensation for PFAS-related illness.
Bransford said certain members of the NFPA standard-setting committee also are members of the textile and gear manufacturers industry.
"We’re going to continue using it," Bobzien said. "It's what we do. That's the job and that's going to continue to happen."
Locally, Bobzien is heading up the fight to advocate for safer work practices and limit firefighters’ exposure rate to PFAS. Right now, he's pushing for the county and eventually the city — though headed up by a different union — to fund alternative gear for non-fire-related service calls.
"We run car wrecks, medical calls and to limit our time in turnout gear, we’re asking our municipalities to look into alternative things we can wear," Bransford said.
She gave examples of extrication gear or jumpsuits that can be easily thrown over clothes.
County firefighters are also advocating for annual early cancer screenings and in-depth physicals.
From 2018 to current, New Hanover County Fire Rescue gear was purchased with outer shell and thermal barrier as PFAS-free, county spokesperson Alex Riley said.
"While waiting for manufacturers to design and approve truly PFAS free turnout gear, Fire Rescue is reviewing ways to limit current turnout gear usage," he added. "Alternate protective clothing for non-fire incident responses is also being evaluated."
WFD Chief Mason said the city has not purchased jumpsuits for firefighters yet, but their uniforms — more traditional pants and shirts — are NFPA-compliant and worn on a more regular basis for service calls.
"The uniforms are made from fire-resistant material designed to offer a level of protection from thermal burns," he explained to Port City Daily on a call Friday. "We primarily respond to EMS calls — they’re the bulk of our calls anyway."
Riley said for the county, preliminary evaluations are being reviewed for alternative gear for firefighters, though no cost analysis has been prepared.
To additionally try to limit exposure to PFAS, Mason said WFD has now installed turnout gear washing machines and dryers — more than $10,000 per set — in all nine fire stations. Each firefighter is assigned two sets of turnout gear; if the primary one gets dirty from exposure to chemicals or facing a structure fire, a clean set is available for use while it can be washed and decontaminated.
"Gear washers will be the standard from here on out," Mason said. "They also have residential washers and dryers to launder their uniforms at the station."
As lead of the local firefighters’ union, Bobzien works directly with legislation that impacts firefighters in the state — "we introduce it, support it and also oppose it."
"Sometimes bills out there that seem to be helpful but they’re really not," he said.
Specifically, he was referring to Senate Bill 658, introduced by New Hanover representative Sen. Michael Lee. The bill infuses millions in academic research to study health effects of PFAS and address contamination. It also would fund a training facility, guiding firefighters on how to use PFAS-containing aqueous film-forming forms (AFFF) while minimizing the impact to the environment.
ALSO: PFAS bills filed: $93M in comprehensive studies, $20M to address firefighting safety
"It turns us into human Guinea pigs," Bobzien said. "I’m not a fan of being used like that and I’m sure other firefighters agree."
Cape Fear River Watch executive director Dana Sargent — whose firefighter brother died from brain cancer in 2019 — sent an email to Lee, along with co-sponsors Sens. Mary Wills Bode and Benton Sawry. She wrote there's no way of knowing if PFAS caused her brother's cancer but called an aspect of the legislation "inhumane."
"As you know, the military is phasing out PFAS-containing firefighting foam by 2024 — not just in training — completely," Sargent wrote to the senators. "Rep. Ted Davis introduced, yet again, a bill to ban PFAS-containing firefighting foam here in NC in training. And yet SB 658 — rather than suggesting some research on PFAS-free foams — is actually suggesting that NC use our firefighters as guinea pigs for research on chemicals we already know are toxic. This is of course a very personal issue for me so I am trying hard to temper my words, but I hope you can agree that this is absolutely abhorrent."
She suggested constructing a PFAS-free firefighting training site to allow departments to test alternative foams for efficacy and safety. Sargent's letter also details how the bill is counterproductive: Portions suggest health studies should be done for firefighters exposed to PFAS while also subjecting them to more of the chemicals.
Mason said WFD has phased out training with the foam at all costs yet still has it on hand for emergencies. It is used primarily for flammable liquid fires, such as a gasoline tanker spill, he added.
Last year, North Carolina had each fire department inventory its AFFF.
"What the state is trying to do is get a handle on how much there is and figure out a way to replace all of it," Mason said.
Locally, WFD has roughly 10,000 gallons of the thick liquid concentrate. Mason said it's stored in one central location, plus a few 2,500-gallon totes loaded on a dumpster truck, ready to be deployed if needed.
"We try to avoid using it at all costs to avoid exposure," he said. "It's always been used somewhat sparingly but we can't even put it on the ground at our joint training facility."
Some of WFD's foam has been replaced with more environmentally friendly versions over the years, but it's expensive to replace it all. Mason said it would likely be close to half-a-million-dollars to exchange the entire supply.
"I’m kinda hopeful the state or federal government will come up with a program to collect it all and find an appropriate way to dispose of it and provide funding to replace it," he added.
Riley said the county disposed of all PFAS-containing firefighting foam in 2021 and replaced it with an alternative.
The European Union and Canada are working toward banning PFAS in a variety of uses, including fire fighting foams. The U.S. Department of Defense has pledged to phase out all PFAS-containing foam by 2024; however, hasn't announced a replacement product yet. PFAS-free foams have been on the market for decades but can be less effective at suppressing certain fires, according to the DOD.
Haw River riverkeeper Emily Sutton said companies Patagonia and REI have pledged to remove all PFAS in its products by 2026 due to customer demand.
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