The presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in firefighter turnout gear has raised significant concern recently. PFAS are a category of manufactured chemicals linked to cancer and other diseases.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting (NFPA 1971) requires that firefighter gear meet certain criteria for resistance to heat, water, and other hazards. Since the properties of PFAS can impart water and oil resistance to fabrics, these substances are often used in firefighter gear to help it meet these safety standards.
However, for firefighters who already face increased cancer risk from fire-related exposures to smoke and soot, as well as vehicle exhaust and other hazardous materials, PFAS in bunker gear is just one more pathway for exposure to potential carcinogens. The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) has been advocating for removal of PFAS in bunker gear, stating that it is an “unnecessary occupational threat.”
This month, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced the release of a report that contributes much-needed evidence to help decision-makers and manufacturers improve the safety of firefighter gear. NIST conducted an in-depth examination of a range of textiles used in turnout gear coats and pants, which are constructed in three layers – an outer shell, a moisture barrier, and a thermal barrier. The results of this research further cement our understanding of what is inside the gear.
The research showed that the amount of PFAS present varies widely between manufacturers and layers, with the highest PFAS concentrations observed in the outermost two layers. The results of the study suggest that selecting optimal combinations of fabrics for each layer could significantly reduce the amount of PFAS present in turnout gear.
This research is part of a larger effort by NIST to examine public health risks to first responders related to PFAS. NIST is completing a similar study of PFAS in new and stressed hoods, gloves, and wildland gear.
Future work by NIST will examine the effect of typical use on the types and concentrations of PFAS in firefighter gear textiles, since higher PFAS concentrations have been observed in used fire fighter gear compared with new firefighter gear. Additionally, exposure to heat, ultraviolet irradiation, and laundering have been found to alter PFAS concentrations in durable water repellent (DWR) treated textiles. Future work will also test for PFAS in dust collected from fire stations, and NIST plans to study the amount of PFAS released from firefighter gear textiles when exposed to simulated sweat.
You can read NIST’s news release and the full report on NIST’s website to learn more about this research. FirefighterCloseCalls.com provides an overview of the report, along with an important reminder to firefighters to maintain a healthy lifestyle, get regular health screenings, and to sign up for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) newly launched National Firefighter Registry (NFR) for Cancer.