Workplace exposures Fire/emergency medical services

‘What’s killing us’: Firefighter groups warn of health risks linked to protective gear


Photo: Matt277/iStockphoto

Washington — Concerned that firefighters’ protective gear may contain potentially harmful “forever chemicals,” the International Association of Fire Fighters and the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association are advising their members to take precautions to reduce exposure.

Known as “forever chemicals” because they break down slowly over time, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances have been linked to cancer and other adverse health effects, such as high cholesterol, changes in liver enzymes and low birth weight.

Recommended precautions include limiting use of protective gear – commonly called turnout gear – “only to emergency responses where its protection is a necessity.”

In addition, IAFF and Metro Chiefs encourage firefighters to:

  • Wash their hands after handling turnout gear.
  • Clean apparatus cabs on fire trucks regularly and after every fire.
  • Keep turnout gear out of firehouse living areas.
  • Seal turnout gear in a container or bag during transport, avoiding storage in passenger compartments when possible.
  • Replace legacy gear as new, PFAS-free technologies become available.

“This is the challenge of our generation, and if we don’t act, it will be the challenge of our children’s generation,” IAFF General President Edward Kelly said in a press release. “We can’t just salute in front of the church and fight for better benefits. We need to combat what’s killing us and I am committed to making sure we do everything we can to extinguish cancer from the fire service. That starts with removing PFAS from our turnout gear and, until PFAS-free options exist, reducing our exposure as best we can.”

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