fireman on top of a ladder

How “Forever Chemicals” Are Hurting Firefighters

Written by Jordan Farber, Juris Doctor Candidate and Associate Editor of the Chicago-Kent Journal of Environmental and Energy Law

The job of a firefighter is not easy, nor is it particularly safe. While many people correctly assume that fires, smoke, carbon monoxide, dangerous buildings, and other hazardous environments are the primary sources of danger, it may come as a surprise that their protective gear is also potentially hazardous.

This hazard comes from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances better known as PFAS or “forever chemicals.” The reason PFAS is called “forever chemicals” is because they never break down. In fact, 99% of Americans have PFAS inside of their body that will never disappear. In high enough concentrations, these “forever chemicals” have been known to cause a myriad of health issues such as increased cholesterol levels, changes in liver enzymes, and even increase risk of kidney or testicular cancer, among other issues.

For firefighters specifically, their risk of testicular cancer is now 2.02 times greater than that of an average person. Researchers at Notre Dame University discovered that PFAS located on the outer shell of firefighting equipment, which is meant to keep moisture out of the inner protective layers, was itself migrating into parts of the gear that does not usually contain PFAS. Not only does PFAS migrate to inner layers of firefighting protective gear, but PFAS can migrate from the gear and into the air, which firefighters then breathe in.

PFAS is also used in firefighting foam, which has been shown to contaminate both drinking, and groundwater. Attorney, Elizabeth Pritzker, who represents firefighters in California in PFAS related issues has stated that there is a “substantial causational link” between firefighters and cancer, considering all of the firefighters involved in the case have a form of cancer and PFAS blood levels much higher than normal.

Thankfully, legal action around PFAS is being taken. Most notably, with Pritzker in California representing firefighters so they receive the justice they deserve. One of the largest firefighting unions in the nation recently brought up a proposal at their most recent convention that would allow for their gear to be tested more thoroughly for chemicals, and work with their gear manufacturers to make their gear safer.

The contamination has been out there for 60 to 70 years, and people were still referring to these chemicals as “emerging contaminants.” What’s starting to emerge is awareness now of the scope of the contamination. People are understanding the scope now and realizing it’s in the water all over the United States. 

Rob Bilott

In a recent PFAS lawsuit, the companies DuPont, Chemours and Corteva ended up paying $4 billion in settlement money. PFAS is common in household products like non-stick Teflon pans, and in fabrics. It is also found in items like microwavable popcorn bags, and fast food wrappers. PFAS in food products is particularly dangerous, because it can leach into the food, and therefore inside of the human body upon consumption. With evidence like this, it makes sense that the National Law Review predicts PFAS litigation will expand to other product liability type cases.

Forever chemicals were recently brought into the mainstream thanks to the movie Dark Waters, released back in 2019. The movie is based on a real case where attorney, Rob Bilott filed lawsuit against DuPont over perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), also called C8 because of the 8 carbons that make up the backbone of the molecule. PFOA is a specific kind of PFAS that was dumped into water ways in West Virginia. That case ended up with DuPont paying out a $671 million settlement.

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