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Chemicals used to treat firefighters' gear could pose a health risk

These commonly used chemicals could increase the risk of cancer

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Photo (c) Matt277 - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from Notre Dame University found that chemicals that are used to treat firefighters’ gear could actually pose a threat to their health. 

They found that firefighters’ gear is doused in per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), which are also commonly found in fast-food wrappers and children’s car seats, as a way to protect against water or oil spills. However, these chemicals are incredibly dangerous for consumers and can increase the risk of several types of cancer. 

“If they touch the gear, it gets on their hands, and if they go fight a fire and they put the gear on and take it off and then go eat and don’t wash hands, it could transfer hand to mouth,” said researcher Graham Peaslee. “And if you’re sweating and you have sweat pores, could some of these chemicals come off on the thermal layer and get into the skin? The answer is probably.” 

More risks than meet the eye

The researchers went straight to the source for this study: they tested more than 30 samples of firefighters’ gear, which came from several different manufacturers. They were most interested in understanding the levels of PFAS found on the samples and how the chemicals could put firefighters at risk.  

The researchers learned that the multi-layer design of firefighters’ gear makes the spread of these chemicals riskier, as there are several ways the substances could be spread from gear to person. 

The study revealed that the PFAS residue, though it clings to the fabric it’s adhered to, isn’t permanently stuck there. A simple touch of the hand could cause the chemicals to spread to other parts of the fabric or onto the skin. Moreover, particles can be transferred from the gear onto different surfaces, which can then also be absorbed into the skin. 

Exposure to these chemicals is dangerous for consumers, as it can increase the risk for several types of cancer, including prostate, testicular, and mesothelioma, among several others. Though firefighters’ jobs are to protect others, the researchers think that more should be done to see how firefighters themselves can be better protected.  

“Further work needs to be done to assess the extent of this risk to firefighters,” Peaslee said. “But until this risk is estimated, operational steps can be taken to minimize occupational exposure to these PFAS while still using the [personal protective equipment] to keep the firefighters safe on the job.” 

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