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Senate Bill Seeks To Reduce Firefighters’ Exposure To Chemicals

PFAS are substances found in firefighting foams and protective gear.
U.S. Army Africa
PFAS are substances found in firefighting foams and protective gear.

Senators from Colorado and Nevada are among those sponsoring a bill aimed at reducing firefighters’ exposure to potentially harmful chemicals. 

Earlier this month the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee unanimously approved the bill, which aims to protect firefighters from being exposed to a group of chemicals known as PFAS that are found in firefighting foams and gear.

PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are handy for repelling heat and water, which is why they’re in firefighting foam and protective gear, not to mention some household items like non-stick pots and pans, food containers and carpeting. 

But they’re also thought to be harmful for health. Specifically, epidemiologists concluded there’s a “probable link” between long-term exposure to certain PFAS and things like high cholesterol, kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, and thyroid disease. 

“We’re really conscious about the issue of cancer and so this is just another component of trying to prevent cancer in firefighters,” said Gary Ludwig, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, which supports the bill. 

A study on almost 30,000 career firefighters found that firefighters have higher rates of certain cancers compared to the rest of the population.

“You’re almost hit with a double whammy in the fact that your gear not only has PFAS from the manufacturing process but also the carcinogens from the smoke that is coming out of the building,” he said.

The bill moving through the Senate would require new guidance on how to limit firefighters’ exposure to PFAS, and on alternative firefighting foams and protective equipment. A number of states including Colorado recently passed laws limiting the use of PFAS. 

The chemicals are primarily considered an issue for urban firefighters. But as KQED and the New York Times have reported, wildland firefighters may also be exposed to PFAS from materials in burning buildings, or from their own equipment. Researchers found elevated levels of PFAS in the blood of wildland firefighters who were on the frontlines of the 2017 Tubbs fire in northern California.

“Firefighters are dying with what we call 'their boots off,'" San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine R. Nicholson told KQED. “Instead of dying in an incident in a fire or a vehicle accident, they're dying of cancer and other diseases."

"It will worsen if we keep seeing more and more of these wildland urban interface fires,” she said. “Something needs to change."

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Copyright 2019 KUNC

Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.
Rae Ellen Bichell
I cover the Rocky Mountain West, with a focus on land and water management, growth in the expanding west, issues facing the rural west, and western culture and heritage. I joined KUNC in January 2018 as part of a new regional collaboration between stations in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. Please send along your thoughts/ideas/questions!