Screen shot from the NBC Boston news video.
06 Nov 2018

Research: "Chemicals used in firefighter turnout gear identlified as potential cancer agents"

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Researchers have found potentially carcinogenic compounds that are used as an agent in most American firefighters’ turnout gear, reports the US TV network NBC Boston. A chemist says the US federal government has been “remarkably absent at the moment” in researching the connection to cancer in firefighters.

Read the full article and see the NBC Boston news clip here:

For 28 years, Paul Cotter pulled on his turnout gear in his work Worcester firefighter.

More than four years ago, he got the worst call of his career. He remembers sitting in his kitchen as he got the news: a pre-op physical detected prostate cancer.

“It took me three days to tell my wife,” he said. “I couldn’t tell her.”

Four years later, after treatment, he is cancer free. But with no family history of cancer, Diane Cotter said she began asking questions. And those questions led her to the protective overcoat and pants firefighters wear on every call.

“Cancer-causing agents do not start at a fire,” Paul Cotter said. “We have chemicals in our gear.”

For years discussion and research into high cancer rates among firefighters have focused on the smoke as a possible cause.

But researchers have found potentially carcinogenic compounds that are used as a water-repellent agent in most American firefighters’ turnout gear, as well as in fire suppressing foam, according to NBC.

And federal documents from DuPont, the giant chemical producer and a major manufacturer of the compounds, show that the company researched their impact on humans at least as far back as the 1990s, and feared what regulation could mean for revenue.

No study has been done specifically on a potential link between cancer and use of perfluorinated alkylated substances (PFAS), a group of chemicals that includes perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), in firefighters’ uniforms.

So Diane Cotter went looking for answers.

She took her hunch and turned it into a lead herself, sending samples of new, never worn turnout gear to be tested.

“Almost instantly we got a signal, and that doesn’t usually happen in science,” said Graham Peaslee, a nuclear chemist at the University of Notre Dame.

He tested the gear for PFAS, a group of chemicals that some studies have shown to increase the risk of a range of cancers, including prostate cancer.

“There was a lot of it there,” Peasley said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some studies have found workers producing, and exposed to, PFAS have an increase in diseases including prostate, kidney and testicular cancer.

“The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified PFOA as possibly carcinogenic and EPA has concluded that both PFAS and PFOS are possibly carcinogenic to humans,” the CDC wrote in a 2017 fact sheet to physicians. “Some studies have found increases in prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers in workers exposed to PFAS and people living near a PFOA facility.”

It also noted that more research is needed to clarify what kind of link there is between the compounds and cancer, and that other studies found no correlation.

Here you can also read the full report that this article is based on