The PFAS Paradox: Understanding the health risks for firefighters

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The implications of National Institute of Standards and Technology’s groundbreaking study on PFAS in firefighter gear

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), widely recognised for their presence in traditional firefighting foams and recently identified in turnout gear, stand as a significant and pervasive threat to the fire service.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently undertook research to find out just how much of a threat the very gear designed to protect poses.

The catalyst for this investigation is a legislative mandate born out of the Guaranteeing Equipment Safety for Firefighters Act of 2020.

This act compelled NIST to investigate the contents and composition of new and unused personal protective equipment worn by firefighters, with a keen focus on the presence and behaviour of PFAS.

PFAS, a group of man-made chemicals infamous for their persistence in the environment and in human bodies, have been a growing concern due to their potential health impacts.

The directive from the act was to explore the conditions and extent to which PFAS substances are released into the environment over time via the degradation of personal protective equipment from normal use by firefighters.

NIST’s response to this directive is Technical Note 2260, a comprehensive study that marks a significant advancement in our understanding of PFAS in firefighter gear.

The collaborative efforts of researchers from the Fire Research Division of the NIST Engineering Laboratory and the Chemical Sciences Division of the NIST Material Measurement Laboratory, with support from the National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory of the National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health, have culminated in this landmark report.

The study examined the occurrence and concentration of PFAS in structural firefighter jacket and pants textiles, subjecting them to a battery of stresses including abrasion, elevated temperature, laundering, and weathering—each reflective of the gear’s performance standards in the United States.

This study is pioneering in several respects.

It is the first to report PFAS concentrations in firefighter gear following exposure to controlled stressing processes, shedding light on the change in 51 non-volatile, semi-volatile, and volatile PFAS after such exposures.

The implications offer a new lens through which we can assess the safety of firefighter gear, not only in terms of immediate protection from fire and heat but also in relation to long-term health risks associated with chemical exposure.

NIST’s findings serve as a foundation for future investigations, promising to expand our knowledge to other types of firefighter gear such as gloves, hoods, and wildland firefighting attire.

The ultimate goal is to understand the lifetime PFAS release potential of firefighter gear, guiding us towards safer alternatives that do not compromise the health of the firefighters or the environment.

Why does turnout gear contain PFAS?

PFAS are utilised in firefighter turnout gear due to their unique properties that enhance the gear’s performance in critical aspects essential for firefighting.

As outlined in the National Fire Protection Association’s Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting (NFPA 1971), firefighter turnout gear, including coats, pants, or coveralls, as well as gloves, helmets, and footwear, is engineered to withstand extreme conditions.

To meet the stringent performance requirements specified in NFPA 1971 for chemical, light, and water resistance, certain layers of turnout gear are commonly treated with fluorinated polymers or include fluoropolymer membranes.

These treatments enhance the gear’s durability and resistance to various environmental stresses such as abrasion, heat, ultraviolet radiation, and laundering.

The inclusion of PFAS-based treatments ensures that the gear provides firefighters with the necessary protection against the diverse and hazardous environments they face, by leveraging the robust chemical and physical properties of PFAS to resist degradation and maintain performance over time​​.

When examining firefighter gear, the NIST study conducted identified various types of PFAS in various small amounts, each behaving differently in terms of staying in the fabric or potentially moving into the air.

This is important because it helps us understand what firefighters might be exposed to during their work.

The impact of wear and tear

The NIST research found that PFAS concentrations vary widely between the different layers of firefighter turnout gear, with the outermost layers containing the highest levels.

The methods employed to measure PFAS concentrations included detailed analysis of stressed textiles compared with unstressed counterparts, using a targeted analytical approach.

This approach, while providing valuable insights into PFAS presence and changes due to stressing, also has limitations.

For instance, it can only detect PFAS included in the targeted list, potentially overlooking other PFAS transformations or new types of PFAS formed during stressing.

These techniques, while sophisticated and capable of identifying specific PFAS changes, suggest that understanding the full spectrum of PFAS behaviour in firefighter gear under stress requires consideration of a broader range of PFAS compounds and stressing mechanisms.

The reliability of findings is strengthened by rigorous analytical methods and replication of tests, but is also bound by the targeted nature of PFAS analysis and the inherent complexity of textile stressing processes​​.

Research implications

Exposure to PFAS has been linked to adverse reproductive, developmental, and immunological effects in animal-based studies, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) categorises PFOA, a type of PFAS, as possibly carcinogenic to humans.

Firefighters can be exposed via inhalation, ingestion, or absorption through skin contact with contaminated gear or from the combustion of products containing PFAS on the fireground​​.

Further research suggests that PFAS exposure in firefighters is an occupational hazard, with turnout gear extensively treated with fluoropolymers for water and oil repellency.

Elevated PFAS levels have been found in the dust and air of fire stations, and systemic reviews indicate a correlation between PFAS exposure and increased cancer risk among firefighters.

This underscores the importance of understanding the sources and pathways of PFAS exposure to mitigate health risks​​.

What now?

Other studies have found that cleaning gear can reduce levels of various contaminants, suggesting that similar approaches could be effective for PFAS.

Adapting maintenance routines to include laundering practices specifically aimed at reducing PFAS could involve evaluating the efficacy of different cleaning methods and detergents, possibly leading to the development of new standards for firefighting gear maintenance.

This could also necessitate additional research to ensure that laundering does not degrade the protective qualities of the gear while effectively reducing PFAS levels.

This study points towards the need for establishing industry-wide standards to reduce PFAS use in firefighting gear.

This variability suggests a lack of consistency in how PFAS are applied and managed in the production of firefighter protective clothing, underscoring the need for standardised approaches to limit exposure to these chemicals​​.

Such standards could include specifications for PFAS concentrations, guidelines for alternative repellent technologies, and requirements for gear performance that ensure firefighter safety without relying on harmful chemicals.

By setting clear benchmarks, regulatory bodies and industry groups could encourage manufacturers to innovate and adopt PFAS-free or reduced PFAS alternatives, potentially leading to a shift in the market towards safer firefighting equipment​​.

As awareness of PFAS-related health risks grows among firefighters and the general public, consumer demand for safer gear is only likely to further incentivise manufacturers to comply with new standards, ultimately benefiting firefighter health and safety.

The future of turnout gear

As awareness of the health risks associated with PFAS grows, there’s a clear push towards developing gear that minimises or eliminates the use of these chemicals without compromising on performance or safety.

Innovations in material science and textile engineering will likely play a central role in this transition, as researchers and manufacturers explore alternative materials that offer the same level of protection, durability, and resistance to water and contaminants as PFAS-containing materials, but without the associated health risks​​​​​​.

This pursuit may lead to a greater emphasis on sustainability and health safety in the design ethos of firefighting gear, incorporating biodegradable, non-toxic, and recyclable materials that meet stringent performance standards.

Additionally, regulatory bodies may introduce stricter guidelines and testing protocols to ensure that new materials meet the operational demands of firefighting while also being safer for the users and the environment.

Collaborative efforts between industry stakeholders, regulatory agencies, and the firefighting community will be crucial in driving these changes.

By pooling resources for research and development, sharing knowledge, and adopting best practices, the industry can accelerate the adoption of safer alternatives.

Research initiatives like those undertaken by NIST are pivotal for the evolution of safer firefighting gear, serving as informed, science-based foundations for improvements in safety standards and equipment design.

By systematically identifying and quantifying the presence of PFAS in firefighting gear, NIST’s work lays the groundwork for understanding the extent of chemical exposure and its potential health impacts.

NIST’s research methodologies, which often involve sophisticated analytical techniques and rigorous testing protocols, set benchmarks for quality and reliability in scientific inquiry.

Ultimately, research like NIST’s is vital for driving progress towards gear that better protects firefighters from both immediate dangers and long-term health risks, without sacrificing the essential performance characteristics required for firefighting operations.

This article was originally published in the March 2024 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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