Firefighters sound alarm about toxic chemicals in protective suits, potential health risks

(WSVN) - It’s a story that could affect every firefighter in Florida and across the country. It’s about their gear, their health and why they’re sounding the alarm. The Nightteam’s Karen Hensel has this special assignment report: Fighting More Than Fire.

Palm Beach County firefighter Ric Jorge had been living his dream.

Ric Jorge: “I’ve always wanted to be a fireman for as far back as I can remember.”

His helmet carries visible scars of his fire fights, but now, he suspects the gear designed to protect him could have actually hurt him.

Ric Jorge: “It was not about if I get cancer, it’s when I get cancer.”

Firefighters have known for years they have higher cancer rates.

Ric was diagnosed with colon cancer last year.

Ric Jorge, retired Palm Beach County firefighter: “You see the statistics and the different types of cancer. I just looked at it realistically and said, ‘All right, it’s just a matter of time.'”

Diane Cotter, husband is a retired Worcester, MA firefighter: “Paul was an amazing firefighter, truly a fireman’s firefighter.”

When Diane Cotter’s husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2014, she was determined to find out why, even though she had no medical training.

Diane Cotter: “I have barely a 12th grade education, and I have an expired hair dresser’s license.”

So, she researched, started asking questions, then zeroed in on the protective suits known as turnout gear that firefighters wear to every call.

She asked manufacturers what was in the gear.

Diane Cotter: “‘Well, we can’t tell you because it’s proprietary.'”

But she didn’t give up.

She found Notre Dame nuclear physicist Graham Peaslee, who agreed to test the suits.

Graham Peaslee: “I had not seen anything that high before, and so that’s what made me concerned.”

Peaslee’s test found the gear was soaked in a toxic chemical called polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

Graham Peaslee: “The amount of it there is actually not miniscule. It’s a large amount compared to how toxic these chemicals are.”

Peaslee says when firefighters sweat, their pores open, creating an avenue for the chemicals to possibly enter the body.

Graham Peaslee: “Specifically, underarms and the groin, where the skin is thinner, where there’s more exposure to chemicals known to get through there.”

In June, after a peer review by fellow scientists, his study was published.

Graham Peaslee: “Previous to this article coming out, it was discounted that there was any risk associated with this.”

But the dangers of PFAS have been known for years.

Rob Bilott, attorney: “What’s the impact of the potential that those chemicals were there and could be getting into the blood of the firefighters?”

Attorney Rob Bilott sued and won after PFAS was found in drinking water in West Virginia.

Last year, Hollywood turned his court battle into the movie “Dark Waters.”

Actor Mark Ruffalo portrayed Bilott in the film.

Rob Bilott: “A lot was known about the toxicity of these PFAS chemicals going back many many decades, and when I say known, it was known by the manufacturers.”

And that knowledge is the basis of a new lawsuit.

Two dozen California firefighters are suing manufacturers, including 3M and DuPont, over the PFAS chemical being used in their gear and firefighting foam.

The lawsuit alleges the companies “for decades … were aware of the harmful impact these substances have on human health,” and they sold it “without ever informing firefighters.”

3M sent a statement to 7News: “3M acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS and will vigorously defend our record of environmental stewardship.”

DuPont has not yet responded.

Ed Kelly, International Association of Fire Fighters Union: “Obviously, we are very upset.”

The country’s largest firefighter’s union is now calling for change.

Ed Kelly: “As a union, we’re going to fight like hell to make sure we have gear that protects us, not makes us sick.”

For now, despite knowing about the potential dangers, firefighters across the country still have to put on this gear every day.

Some firefighters want the manufacturers to pay to replace it with safer gear, so they don’t have to fight more than fires.

The Broward Firefighter’s Union says they’re researching new gear technology.

Miami Fire Rescue tells us they don’t have enough information about the issue to comment yet.

3M released the following statement to 7News:

“3M is committed to supporting first responders, including firefighters. 3M acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS and will vigorously defend our record of environmental stewardship.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME:

https://fightingfor.nd.edu/2019/fighting-to-protect-the-brave/

ND STUDY ON PFAS:

https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.estlett.0c00410

EPA BASICS ON PFAS:

https://www.epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas#:~:text=Per%2D%20and%20polyfluoroalkyl%20substances%20(PFAS)%20are%20a%20group%20of,United%20States%20since%20the%201940s.

NIH BASICS ON PFAS:

https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/pfc/index.cfm

Copyright 2020 Sunbeam Television Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.