Firefighters Rally at Capitol for PFAS-Free Gear
WASHINGTON — Firefighters from across the nation gathered for a rally at the U.S. Capitol Tuesday to urge Congress to fund the research and development of PFAS-free protective gear and fire extinguishing equipment.
“We need to get these toxic carcinogens out of the manufacturing process of our bunker gear,” said Edward Kelly, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, during the rally.
“To do that, we need partners,” he said. “We’ve said all along, we’re not Republicans or Democrats, we’re not red, we’re not blue, we’re firefighters through and through,” he continued, adding, “We support those who support us. We need help on both sides of the aisle to affect this change.”
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of toxic chemicals long found in a wide range of products including fire-retardant clothing and equipment, and the foam used to extinguish certain kinds of fires.
PFAS exposure has been linked to a number of serious health conditions, including cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease.
As reported on frequently in the past by The Well News, lawmakers and regulators have been grappling with the issue, but the going has been slower than some would like. It was only last year, for instance, that the Environmental Protection Agency established new health advisories for certain iterations of the chemicals.
Last fall, the Defense Department issued a Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement prohibiting the procurement of certain items containing perfluorooctanesulfonic acid or perfluorooctanoic acid.
Now, firefighters want Congress to take similar steps for them. The rally on Capitol Hill was the finale of the IAFF Legislative Conference held in Washington this week.
On Monday, the firefighters were joined at their conference at the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill by President Joe Biden, who assured them that limiting their exposure to toxic chemicals is one of his administration’s top priorities.
“You guys are the best, you women are the best, and that’s not hyperbole,” Biden said. “You’re the very best America has to offer. We owe you.
“Toxic substances you’re exposed to on the job are almost certainly why cancer is a leading killer to firefighters,” he said, adding, “We’re going after toxic exposure to PFAS, so-called forever chemicals, that for years have been in your gear, your equipment … that you depend on to be able to do your job.
“I’m determined, determined, to make sure you have the gear that protects you without making you or your family sick. You deserve it,” the president said.
At the rally on Tuesday, the firefighters, some carrying signs that said, “Protect Firefighters from Cancer” and “Firefighters Need PFAS-Free Gear,” were joined by their representatives in Congress, including Reps. Lori Chavez-DeRemer, R-Ore., Sydney Kamlager-Dove, D-Calif., and Greg Landsman, D-Ohio.
“It does not make sense that we encourage and demand that you put your lives on the line and to know that we, Congress, don’t have your backs,” Kamlager-Dove said. “Please know that I will — and Congress will — stand with you to help right this wrong to remove PFAS in the gear.”
Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., a doctor by profession, said, “Raging fires aren’t the only thing that threaten firefighters’ lives, and we know that now.
“You’re exposed to dangerous cancer toxins, and the protective equipment you’re wearing now also has the PFAS in it … and I’m just baffled as a physician how we’ve let this go on,” he said.
Though nobody knows exactly how many firefighters have died as a result of PFAS exposure, Kelly suggested that as many as three-fourths of the names added annually to the Fallen Firefighters’ Memorial in Colorado Springs, Colorado, each year are those of individuals who have succumbed to job-related cancer.
Most trace the problem to the firefighters’ so-called “turnout gear,” the three layers of protective clothing designed to keep them safe from fire and heat. In almost all cases, the inner layer is treated with PFAS chemicals to withstand extraordinarily high temperatures.
Until last week, one barrier to replacing this dangerous gear was that the national standards for fire-resistant gear still included toxic compounds.
However, on Feb. 27, the National Fire Protection Association Technical Committee approved PFAS-free turnout gear as a new national standard, allowing manufacturers to make safer equipment. The new standards will go into effect in 2025.
Once new, PFAS-free gear, becomes available the IAFF plans to conduct independent testing to ensure it’s nontoxic and effective in protecting firefighters.
But there’s another barrier, and many at the rally said this is where Congress can help — replacing gear is expensive, especially for smaller fire stations.
Every firefighter in the nation has at least one set of turnout gear and many have two so they can have one ready while the other is getting cleaned.
With a set of gear costing anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000, the minimum total cost of replacing all PFAS gear could be around $1.5 billion.
The firefighters are hoping Congress will include some kind of funding to at least defray the cost in the next federal budget.
Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue
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