LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Firefighters in Arkansas and across the nation put their lives on the line every time they respond to an emergency.

The list of hidden dangers they face is endless, but nowhere on that list does it say that the protective gear they wear to keep them safe may also contain a hidden chemical that could cost them their life.

In August of last year, the International Association of Fire Fighters issued a joint statement saying:

“Recent studies have shown all three layers of the protective clothing contain Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) chemicals, which have been linked to cancer – the leading cause of firefighter deaths.”  

Little Rock Assistant Fire Chief Michael Doan has been with the department for the past 20 years.

“It’s just been a great opportunity to do something so fulfilling,” Doan said. “The times when we are able to help somebody in their greatest time of need and one of their worst days… there’s not a profession like it. It’s all I’ve known and it’s a great opportunity. I love it.”

He also knows the risks that come with it.

“The biggest danger of course is the fire and smoke we’re exposed to when we go into the fire… the products of combustion caused by the fire and the hazards that come with it,” he said.

But the last thing anyone expected to hear was that their protective gear or turnouts as they call them may contain “forever chemicals,” or PFAS, that can cause cancer.

“I wouldn’t say I’m angry,” he said. “We’re just being vigilant making sure we’re taking all the protective measures and steps to ensure that our firefighters are safe in the best equipment possible.”

According to the IAFF, the best equipment available right now is laced with carcinogens because no one makes turnouts that are free of PFAS. As a result, the IAFF and Metro Chiefs strongly suggest all firefighters follow several recommendations to minimize their exposure.

“What we do is make sure the firefighters know that the gear is only to be worn when the emergency situation deems necessary,” Doan said.

They have also been instructed to take the following precautions: 

  • Turnout gear should NOT be taken into firehouse living areas
  • When transporting gear in personal vehicles, it should be sealed in a container or bag
  • Apparatus cabs should be cleaned regularly after every fire
  • Wash your hands after handling turnout gear
  • Legacy turnout gear should be replaced with new PFAS-free technologies become available
  • Do not wear turnout gear on responses where this level of protection is not necessary

Firefighters are also instructed to wash their turnout gear in huge extractors using a specific type of detergent. The gear is then placed on drying racks which take roughly two hours to dry which is why each firefighter has a second set of protective gear ready to go.

What are PFAS and how dangerous are they?

PFAS are a class of over 9,000 different chemicals and can be found in every consumer product. The most studied PFAS are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). PFAS are man-made chemicals and have been around since the 1940s.

They are widely used to make nonstick cookware, water-repellant clothing (such as firefighter’s protective clothing), stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, cosmetics, fire-fighting foams, and other products that resist grease, water, and oil.

Researchers and environmental groups however have claimed that exposure to PFAS can contribute to serious and potentially deadly health consequences, including several types of cancer, including liver, breast, prostate, testicular, bladder, and kidney being the most common.

Dr. Shuk-Mei Ho is an internationally renowned scientist and the Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at UAMS. In the simplest of terms, she knows a lot about chemicals, including PFAS.

“Almost every single one of us has a certain level of PFAS in our body, but firefighters are particularly exposed to higher levels and also for a longer duration of time,” Ho said.

What also makes the chemicals dangerous is that the molecule is very stable.

“This chemical is lipophilic, meaning they accumulate in fat tissues. They are very difficult to have biological breakdowns so they cannot be degraded in their environment,” she explained.

That is not good news for firefighters. Dr. Ho says, at this point, the only way firefighters can decrease the levels of PFAS in their systems is to “stop doing the task.” In other words, quit.

“There is nothing you can do about it because they bio-accumulate on our body tissues.” One thing Dr. Ho also said, “None of these are causation. All of these are association studies.”

Future for firefighters and PFAS

According to the IAFF, no manufacturer currently makes PFAS-free turnout gear. As a result, firefighters have no choice but to continue following the safety recommendations to decontaminate their gear and minimize their exposure.

But there may be some promising news on the horizon. 3M recently announced it will “exit per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) manufacturing and work to discontinue the use of PFAS across its product portfolio by the end of 2025.

”25.” Dr. Ho at UAMS calls this a good first step, but she still has concerns.

“There are hundreds of these chemicals, and we only know two prominent ones that we study. PFAS and PFOS. So, if they are replacing it, what are they replacing it with? Those substitutes have very little studies. The risk profiles and toxicity profile has very little knowledge.”