Various international and national studies have shown that firefighters are at a higher risk than the general population of developing certain cancers due to workplace exposure to hundreds of carcinogenic chemicals.

Now, there are questions about whether the personal protective equipment firefighters wear, also known as turnout gear, may be part of the problem. 

Per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) and firefighter turnout gear 

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance(s), known as PFAS are a group of over 4,700 human-made chemicals. They are used in firefighting gear because of their highly effective ability to repel oil and water. Their moniker as 'forever chemicals' stems from the fact that they degrade very slowly. 

According to Airdrie's Fire Chief, Mike Pirie, the city's firefighters use turnout gear that includes but is not limited to gloves, helmets, balaclavas, helmet liners, coveralls, and boots. 

"Any of them could contain PFAS chemicals. Helmets, gloves and boots are NFPA [National Fire Protection Association] compliant so I would expect them to be similar to the jacket and pants," Chief Pirie wrote. 

The NFPA, a U.S.-based international nonprofit organization is the body that publishes the requirements for fire protective clothing under NFPA 1971. 

"In 2021 the NFPA committee for the NFPA 1970 standard voted to maintain the use of PFAS or related chemicals in turnout gear," Pirie wrote.  

According to the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), a labour union representing paid full-time firefighters and emergency medical services personnel in Canada and the United States, the testing standards set out by the NFPA effectively mean that PFAS must be utilized in firefighter turnout gear. 

"A provision in NFPA 1971 requires certain components of firefighter bunker gear to pass the Ultraviolet Light Degradation Test. The test requires turnout gear to be exposed to UV light for 40 hours without degradation. The only substance that can pass the test for that long is PFAS," the IAFF states on their website.  

Neil McMillan, IAFF Director for Science and Research said that the organization is pushing for the testing standards to change so that safer alternatives can be considered.  

"Given that firefighters are already suffering increased rates of many types of cancers, including those that are specifically linked as being causative from PFAS, there's an absolute interest within the fire service to try to eliminate these chemicals from being incorporated into our gear as soon as possible.” 

Emerging scientific studies on PFAS and potential adverse health effects 

Health Canada cites various studies suggesting PFAS can cause adverse liver, birth weight, metabolism, and immune system issues in humans. While the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that current peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown that exposure to certain levels of PFAS, among other things, may lead to: 

  • Increased risk of some cancers, including prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers 

  • Reduced ability of the body’s immune system to fight infections, including reduced vaccine response 

  • Interference with the body’s natural hormones 

However, governmental agencies in both Canada and the United States underline that the data and science surrounding PFAS and its health effects on humans still need to be expanded for more robust data.

The emerging data on PFAS, coupled with the now-accepted fact that firefighters are at a higher risk for cancers - especially testicular and prostate cancer, is what worries Airdrie firefighter Matt Elgie. Elgie is the President of the Airdrie Professional Firefighters Association.  

"It feels like a pit in my stomach. We've been taking all of these steps to manage the risk of exposure to carcinogens through the suppression process, which was a known risk of our career choice. We've done a really good job of being aggressive with how we decontaminate following exposures," he said. 

Chief Pirie noted that the manufacturers that supply AFD gear have not supplied any documentation in regards to PFAS being harmful. However, he did note that they have given documentation regarding the use of chemical treatments. 

"I don’t believe they have highlighted or diminished the topic in communication with AFD," he wrote. 

Pirie also noted that the rigorous decontamination procedures within the city's fire department are perhaps the best practice they have to date for minimizing the exposure firefighters have to chemicals – whether they be PFAS or other chemicals released through fires. 

"In reviewing the IAFF's best practices, I can't find a single step that AFD doesn’t already follow. In my opinion, this speaks to our common-sense approach to contamination reduction and how this chemical family relates to the rest of our workplace exposures. Our commitment is to update our practices in a timely and practical manner as the research evolves." 

However, when asked if the topic of PFAS is something the city's firefighters have discussed amongst themselves, Elgie agreed that it does come up. 

"One [conversation] happened at the trucks [earlier] when we were checking them. [The conversation] was, 'what jacket are you putting on to go check your truck?' and people making choices around that," Elgie noted. "Historically, we would have thrown on the bunker [turnout] jacket. The conversation yesterday and today was: 'I'm going to wear my duty jacket rather than the suppression jacket, because I know it doesn't have carcinogens in it.'" 

Alarmist or pro-active approach?  

Earlier this month, the IAFF announced that it was filing a lawsuit against the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). According to the IAFF, the lawsuit against the NFPA was: 

"For its role in imposing a testing standard that effectively requires the use of PFAS in firefighter protective gear.  The suit, filed in Norfolk County Superior Court in Dedham, Massachusetts., seeks damages and other relief." 

In a joint statement earlier this year, the IAFF and the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association in the U.S. also issued a health safety advisory on PFAS in firefighter turnout gear.  

"We have to put our gear on to protect ourselves when we enter hostile work environments. When we're going to answer the call, we know that the risk is there. We're frustrated that others have not taken the risks as seriously as we are because we ultimately are going to be bearing the burden of those illnesses," McMillan added. 

However, Airdrie's Fire Chief underlined that the scientific data presented to-date is neither conclusive nor definitive, but he said concerns can't be dismissed.

"I'm not going to discount their [the IAFF's] concerns," he said. "I [have done] this job longer than most of our staff have and I've worn this gear that they're talking about, so, I understand their position." 

Pirie said that in his role as fire chief, he can't simply refuse to buy NFPA-approved gear, but he noted that if there is a possibility to eliminate PFAS from gear without compromising the safety of the gear itself, it should be done.  

Worries and hopes about what the future may hold  

Elgie said that while the news surrounding PFAS in firefighter turnout gear and its potential health effects are disheartening, he added that the silver lining may be that future generations of firefighters may be better equipped with both knowledge and the ability to push for change. 

"It's no different than generations past, where the different risks taken by firefighters. We have more knowledge now and we can better address those risks and do a better job of prevention in the future." 

The risks that firefighters took decades ago and the horrendous consequences of those risks that are known today are something that Chief Pirie is reflecting on as well. 

He said that decades ago a slang term firefighters used was 'salty' - a term that was meant to describe how firefighters and their gear looked after a 'job well done'.  

"My career is rooted in the previous viewpoints; if your gear was dirty that means you were doing the job. We now know that's ridiculous and it leads to severe outcomes. As Chief, am I worried that down the road the evidence is definitive and clear that PFAS causes this [cancer] - but we didn't know and now 10-15 years later we know?" Pirie asked. "Absolutely it's on my mind - it 100 per cent weighs on my mind. That's why I think we have to take that reasonable approach." 

Pirie concluded that what is known now about firefighter gear is that it protects firefighters from the extremely toxic and proven hazards of operating in a fire.

"We should focus on what we know while remaining open to new possibilities. It's in our best interest to press for research to answer these questions objectively." 

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