Boston 25 News first reported extensively on the high rate of cancer among firefighters. Now, we've uncovered a new concern. It centers around the gear that firefighters are wearing and some believe that gear should be recalled immediately.
Boston 25 News Anchor Blair Miller has been looking into this, even traveling across the country to test the gear that firefighters are wearing to see just how serious this is.
Life was at its best for Paul Cotter, doing what he loved in Worcester. "Being a firefighter was my life," says Cotter. That all changed in 2014 when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was devastating to Paul and his wife, Diane. "It's been difficult," says Diane Cotter. "We are grateful that he is alive and well but it came too early. He retired 10 years too early," she said.
For years, they struggled to understand how he got cancer. "I didn’t connect it to the job at first," says Paul. Diane says she immersed herself in finding out why. That lead her to send part of Paul's uniform to a lab at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.
Boston 25 News traveled to South Bend to see the lab for ourselves. We met with nuclear physics professor Graham Peaslee who tested Paul's jacket. "We ran 4 samples and said yes, they’re fluorinated and they’re rather highly fluorinated," says Peaslee. "That means it has the potential to have PFAS chemicals in there. And the highly chlorinated suggests there’s a lot of PFAS there," he said.
PFAS, as we've shown in recent Boston 25 reports, are man-made chemicals used in various industries including firefighter gear as a water repellent. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some studies have shown an increase in certain cancers for workers who are exposed to PFAS.
During our visit to Notre Dame, Peaslee's students were testing the gear of 24 firefighter gear from around the country, including Boston. In the lab, it only takes a matter of seconds for researchers to know what’s on this firefighter gear and what’s not. Peaslee found all 24 uniforms were fluorinated and highly fluorinated in some instances.
"How concerned are you?" asked Boston 25's Blair Miller. "The reason I’m doing this study is because I’m concerned," says Peaslee. "I see that much fluorine on any item and I know it’s going to end up in a landfill. That’s my concern; where it could end up," he said.
Boston firefighter gear tested
Back in Boston, we had collected a variety of firefighter jackets to bring with us for testing. We brought a mixture of both old and newer firefighter jackets. Peaslee tested them and within seconds saw them coated with fluorine but the newer jacket concerned Peaslee more than others. "That one has bromine, which is also known to be toxic," said Peaslee. "I would keep that in the box on the way home because you don’t want bromine compounds on your hands," he said.
Peaslee is now investigating the impact on firefighters who are exposed to those chemicals every time they wear the uniform. He says he wants to know if it gets into their bodies and what's the long term impact? "If it comes off, we have a possible occupational exposure and that is something the firefighter is not aware of and that would be very concerning," says Peaslee.
It's deeply concerning to Kathy Crosby-Bell who lost her son, Michael Kennedy in the Back Bay fire in 2014. "If my son were alive today, he'd be facing this because he was a dedicated firefighter. He loved what he did," said Crosby-Bell. "Do you believe it's possible that firefighters are getting occupational cancer from their own uniforms that they're wearing?" asked Miller. "Yes, I do. I think it's a fact," she responded.
Boston 25 News contacted Globe, one of the largest retailers of firefighter turnout gear. It supplies the gear to Boston firefighters. We asked them if they're studying this and if they're planning to use something other than PFAS on the gear. In a statement, they wrote: "protecting (firefighters) is Globe’s business; every piece of our turnout gear meets or exceeds applicable industry standards."
We reached out to 3M, Dupont, and Dow; companies that have made and sold PFAS. 3M told us, "3M does not make chemicals for firefighter turnout gear. We have found no evidence that our legacy chemistries that were phased out in the mid-2000s were used for this application."
Dupont said, "Dupont manufactures fibers that may be used by fabric and garment manufacturers to produce turnout gear. PFAS, including PFOA, are not used in the manufacturing process of these fibers." They stopped using PFOA in 2015. Dow has not responded to our requests.
Diane and Paul Cotter tell Boston 25 News, they've been frustrated with the lack of answers. "We shouldn’t have to be doing this. We should’ve been able to get that information readily but the corporations won’t give us that information because they consider it proprietary information," says Diane.
Some believe this research could lead to a recall of firefighter gear. Peaslee's research is some of the first on this issue. Many in the fire service are watching closely and eager to see his final results which are expected in the next couple of months.
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