Exclusive: The story of Burned Protecting the Protectors

Mark Ruffalo supports Ethereal Films Burned Protecting the Protectors

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IFSJ Editor Iain Hoey sat down with Elijah Yetter-Bowman to find out about the story behind their documentary Burned: Protecting the Protectors

Growing up, Elijah Yetter-Bowman was torn between two futures. Their childhood was spent engaging with the arts, theatre, and other spaces that intersected with creativity. However, when they were a teenager, they learned their mother had developed a rare autoimmune disease. This led to a revelation about the shortcomings of medicine for the treatment of rare diseases and so Yetter-Bowman shifted their focus to applied medical research.

Nearing the end of their education as a pre-med student, Yetter-Bowman became involved in the broader environmental issue of forever chemicals, also known as PFAS. In 2017, they learned that their hometown in North Carolina had been exposed to a myriad of PFAS through the local drinking water supply over the course of 40 years.

This served as the breaking point: “I had a background, both in arts and communication as well as the nitty gritty organic chemistry of how these things work. It felt like there was an opportunity to communicate and convey steps to take action for a really complicated problem. I didn’t really look back after that.”

Since that pivotal moment into what was intended to be a one-or-two year endeavour, now elongated into five and a half years and counting, Yetter-Bowman has dedicated themself to raising awareness of forever chemicals through documentary films including the recently released Burned: Protecting the Protectors.

The firefighter’s wife

The 30-minute documentary follows Diane Cotter, a hairdresser and wife of a lifetime firefighter Paul who developed cancer. Following Paul’s diagnosis Diane sought to understand why occupational disease such as cancer is such a common issue in the fire service and if there was more to the story than just exposure to the products of combustion.

Despite being neither college educated nor having a background in chemistry, Diane had a hunch that there might be something else going on and so began to research firefighter turnout gear and the prospect that it might contain harmful chemicals. She presented her research to Applied Nuclear Physicist Graham Peaslee who, touched by her story, decided to look into it.

“The initial test was horrible,” says Yetter-Bowman. Peaslee’s test revealed a high signature of PFAS in firefighter turnout gear. “This was not something that otherwise he had seen reported anywhere. There was no real disclosure within the fire service.”

“This was not something that otherwise he had seen reported anywhere. There was no real disclosure within the fire service.”

Diane and Peaslee found a non-profit who was willing to pitch in money. They carried out a peer reviewed study which was the real turning point. There is a clip in the documentary where Peaslee says he was nervous to report the findings, even though it was peer reviewed, because no one else had ever said this before.

The immense concentration of PFAS that were found in the turnout gear were some of the highest levels of fluorine Peaslee had ever seen in any kind of textile. They had discovered huge amounts of a well-established harmful compounds on all layers of turnout gear, that had likely been present in gear dating back to the 1970s.

Yetter-Bowman summarises: “Taking all that into perspective, we’re essentially saying that this person who did not go to college, had no chemistry background, but had a hunch that maybe there’s another contributor to firefighter cancer and occupational disease, decided to investigate. She was told not to, she was dismissed, she was gaslit for many, many years.

“They had discovered huge amounts of a well-established harmful compounds on all layers of turnout gear.”

“Her character was directly attacked by members of the fire service and she continued to persevere. She found a person to test it, the tests found that she was probably right, this was peer reviewed, and now it’s been published multiple times and replicated.”

Grant Peaslee’s peer reviewed study was followed up by one of his peers, Jennifer Field. Field carried out a different type of analysis which showed that the high level of PFAS found – shockingly – in the original study were far below the reality.

Securing Mark Ruffalo

The original intent, Yetter-Bowman tells, was to make a film that comprehensively covers the whole issue of forever chemicals, to disillusion it, and to make it accessible. That film is still in progress under the title Gen X. The initial plan saw the third act of Gen X serve as the big reveal of the presence of PFAS in firefighter turnout gear.

Yetter-Bowman said they felt an ethical quandary after filming had completed: “It didn’t make sense to wait. Feature documentaries take a long time to finish. We had a moment where we thought, ‘Why are we waiting with an indefinite timeline to get this out when we could just make a specific message for the people who desperately need it?’” The documentary team decided to put Gen X on pause and got to work on finishing Burned to get the message to firefighters as quickly as possible.

During the development of Burned, Yetter-Bowman worked closely with Rob Bilott, named by the New York Times as ‘The Lawyer Who became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare’ for taking on an environmental lawsuit into the company’s long history of chemical pollution, and the subject of 2019 film Dark Waters in which he is played by Mark Ruffalo.

“We had jokingly thought, oh, it’d be great to get Mark involved with Gen X,” Yetter-Bowman tells – and is it transpired, this is exactly what happened. When Ruffalo’s involvement was secured and the team were finally able to get in a room with him the idea to make Burned a standalone piece was not in motion. “The decision to make Burned essentially came at the end of the Gen X interview with Mark,” Yetter-Bowman reveals.

“When we finally got in a room with Mark it was very obvious that he only does this because he’s trying to fix this problem.”

“Clearly there’s a strong motivation that he has as an activist. He said, ‘I have this ability to reach the public, fix the problem’. When we finally got in a room with Mark it was very obvious that he only does this because he’s trying to fix this problem.’” Ruffalo is a named producer of the documentary.

‘Incredibly moved’

In January 2023, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) hosted the world premier of Burned: Protecting the Protectors at the 2023 Affiliate Leadership Training Summit in Las Vegas. After the premiere the number of requests to access the film exploded. “A lot of people basically said, ‘I just saw this film and I want to take it across my community and continuously screen it’,” Yetter-Bowman tells.

They share a letter they received from an attendee of the screening which reads: “I was incredibly moved by this documentary … In fact, it has changed my life so much that I’m not even sure I can look at my job the same way. Today was the first day I put on my gear at work knowing the cancer I may be adding to my body. This has been a wake up call for me and I now feel morally obliged to inform every single person in my almost 3000 member department about the dangers of PFAS in our equipment.”

The production company, Ethereal Films, had originally planned to host their own screenings everywhere but due to the overwhelming response that has become impossible. Instead, Yetter-Bowman says they are providing the tools that they believe are most essential to host educational events to help spread the message as widely as possible: “If we can do that and can continue to work on this, this type of project and we’re happy.”

Yetter-Bowman adds the only thing that one thing they kept in mind during the making and distribution of the documentary is to try to be constructive about what can be controlled and how things can move forward: “PFAS is such a big deal. There’s a lot of different intersections, as Burned lays out – there is a huge level of particular exposure that firefighters face because of their gear – and it’s very actionable.

“There is so much collective bargaining power that firefighters had as an occupation and the union is already trying to stir this up to say, ‘Every manufacturer that makes gear or that makes the textiles stop using harmful substances’.”

Burned: Protecting the Protectors is now available for departments, non-profits and other organisations via www.etherealfilms.org/license-request.

This article was originally published in the April edition of IFSJ. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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