Not just firefighters: Experts say other workers likely exposed to PFAS in gear, uniforms and beyond
Indiana has two new laws that aim to highlight and begin addressing the risks firefighters face from wearing gear that contains PFAS. Experts say those chemicals likely increase the risk of cancer and other health issues. Those experts also say the risk goes beyond just firefighters.
PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” are human-made chemicals found in everything from carpets, to fast food wrappers, to firefighting foams on military bases — like Grissom Air Reserve Base near Kokomo.
Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations biologist, chemist and workplace health and safety program director Nellie Brown says these chemicals are dangerous because they are “endocrine disruptors.”
“When they get into the body, they either mimic hormones or they upset various hormonal balances,” Brown said. "The end result is that we can turn genes on and off inappropriately, we can cause the body's signals to be all disrupted and every body system is potentially affected by some endocrine disrupting.”
The chemicals used to be present in more parts of firefighter gear. As concerns about PFAS’ potential link to disproportionate rates of cancer among firefighters have been raised, manufacturers have whittled away at their presence in almost every part of the gear except for the moisture barrier.
The first of two PFAS-related bills to pass on to the governor’s desk this year was HEA 1341. The bill wouldn’t allow Indiana fire departments to purchase gear unless it has a label stating whether or not it contains PFAS.
READ MORE: Bill would require labels for firefighting gear with PFAS, even though none are PFAS-free
HEA 1219 would create a pilot blood-testing program that up to 1,000 firefighters can volunteer to participate in. The goal is to show how much PFAS is in the firefighters bloodstreams, allowing for better research and potentially helping participating firefighters take steps to protect their health based on the results.
READ MORE: House advances pilot blood testing program, aims to show how PFAS makes firefighters sick
Notre Dame professor Graham Peaslee received piles of gear from firefighters nationwide, wanting him to test it for PFAS. Peaslee has used applied nuclear physics to more effectively measure and study the chemicals.
Peaslee’s widely-cited 2020 study showing the level of exposure firefighters face from the moisture barrier was a source of inspiration for the two bills as well as several lawsuits and other efforts.
“I couldn't believe somebody would have missed this for so long,” Peaslee said. “Somebody's been making this and hasn't been telling the firefighters. And that's the issue … they were told it was all safe.”
There is no alternative to firefighters' PFAS-laden moisture barriers yet due to somewhat controversial standards set by the National Firefighter Protection Association.
Peaslee adds that risk doesn’t begin and end with firefighters’ moisture barriers.
“After we did the firefighters (studies), I had a sheriff's department guy call me up from New York and he said, ‘can you test this new uniform I'm supposed to wear?” Peaslee said.
Because the officer was set to patrol a reservoir, Peaslee said, he had to buy a special uniform set that had waterproof pants. Peaslee said his tests found the pants were “heavily” laden with PFAS.
“And so I think that's what got us started on some of the station wear and work-related clothes that aren't regulated and people just put into them what they think they should be,” he said.
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Peaslee and others have found high-levels of PFAS in flight attendants uniforms, a small portion of face masks, waterproof boots, children's school uniforms, period underwear, protective clothing for soldiers and more. Companies are not always willing to be forthcoming about the chemicals' presence in their products in Peaslee’s experience.
“If you want to be safe, you have to look out for yourself,” he said. “We don't regulate in advance. Europeans regulate in advance, but that's not considered business friendly, whereas here we litigate afterwards, and that is considered business friendliness.”
There are alternatives to PFAS that can be used just as effectively to repel water or make a textile more flame retardant, which are often the primary reasons the chemicals are used, Peaslee said. Some disagree, arguing many of those alternatives fall short.
Like Peaslee, Cornell’s Nellie Brown said people have to protect themselves by being vigilant about what they use.
“You have to know what you're looking for and seek that out,” she said. “I try to get people to look at where they can reduce the risk, because for some of these endocrine disruptors, they're so ubiquitous it's almost impossible to get away from.”
Brown said getting alternatives to PFAS in gear and equipment might take some adjustments to how the work is done. She points to the phasing out of PFAS in firefighting foams as an example.
“The problem with the alternative firefighting foam is that when you're fighting a fire … sometimes hotspots that you thought you'd solved will pop back up again,” she said. “So people have to learn slightly different skills and be aware of where they've been and to go back and get another spot again so that they're not trapped.”
Adam is our labor and employment reporter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @arayesIPB.