DERBY, Kan. (KSNW) — What started out as a Massachusetts woman demanding answers became a Kansas man’s quest to shed light on the dangers of PFAS in firefighting protective gear.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), PFAS is short for polyfluoroalkyl substances, which is a group of chemicals used to make heat, oil, stain, grease, and water-resistant products. This substance can be used on clothing, furniture, adhesives, food packaging, non-stick cooking surfaces, and even the insulation of electrical wire.
“Late in 2016, I got an email from Diane Cotter…to be honest, at first, I thought she was crazy,” Derby volunteer firefighter Jonathan Marr said.
In his spare time, Marr acts as the editor-in-chief for the website station-pride.com. He says after reading over Cotter’s evidence of a potential PFAS exposure hazard, he knew she was onto something.
“It became pretty clear to me that something was fishy, and, you know, we needed to tell this story,” Marr said.
It was then Marr and Cotter created a committee with a small group of firefighters from across the country. After securing $20,000 in funding from the Last Call Foundation, the committee commissioned a formal study to test the amount of PFAS in protective gear.
“1.2 million firefighters are wearing this,” Dr. Graham Peaslee, a Notre Dame professor who conducted the study, said.
Dr. Peaslee says initial tests showed the highest amount of the chemical fluorine present in a textile he had ever seen.
“We were able to get it off on our gloves when we handled the gear,” Dr. Peaslee said. “I was a little worried because I looked at all the literature, and I didn’t see anybody else who had said this, and I wondered how it could have been missed.”
“The amount of PFAS chemicals in turnout gear was about 14,000 times what’s allowed in drinking water,” Marr said.
Dr. Peaslee’s study was officially the first to document PFAS in firefighting protective equipment—creating a domino effect of other studies nationwide. That push ultimately led to a study conducted by the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF): the largest firefighters’ union in the country.
“In some instances, that study not only validated our results, but they got worse results,” Marr said.
The IAFF officially warned of PFAS concerns Tuesday, a step Marr hopes will save thousands of firefighters in the future.
“What most of the fire service has been exposed to up until this point is a done deal, and you know, all we can do is try to make this better for the next generation of firefighters,” Marr said.
When fire departments across Kansas could receive PFAS-free gear is unclear. Marr says the current national standard requires protective gear to be made with PFAS. That standard would have to be changed before new equipment is manufactured.
Marr expects that could take several years.