Nantucket firefighters have elevated levels of PFAS, the so-called "forever chemicals," in their blood, according to the results of a pioneering research study that began back in March to help determine their level of exposure from wearing firefighting turnout gear.
Eighteen firefighters from Nantucket, Hyannis, and Fall River participated in the study, which compared them to the adult male U.S. population.
"It was confirmation of what I expected," said Nantucket Deputy Fire Chief Sean Mitchell. "We knew that firefighters typically have a higher exposure to PFAS."
Participants in the study had average levels of some PFAS compounds that were twice as high as the general population.
The research was spearheaded by the Nantucket PFAS Action Group and the participating fire departments, with funding through a grant provided by UMass Lowell.
With PFAS embedded in their turnout gear, firefighters have raised the alarm regarding their exposure to the chemicals, and Nantucket’s firefighters have established themselves among the leading advocates in the country pushing to eliminate PFAS from turnout gear. Used to manufacture stain- and water-resistant products, the family of chemicals known as PFAS are suspected to increase the risk of kidney and testicular cancers, as well as other health conditions.
"Higher exposure to certain PFAS chemicals have been clearly linked with a number of health effects including elevated cholesterol, immune disruption, hormone disruption and certain cancers (e.g., testicular, kidney, breast)," the study results concluded.
Mitchell said the study results will not only be helpful in continuing the effort to share information and educate other firefighters in Massachusetts and across the country about PFAS, but they will also provide another data point to help lobby the the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to change its standards for turnout gear.
One year ago the NFPA rejected a proposal that could have paved the way for completely PFAS-free gear. The International Association of Fire Fighters - led by members of NFD and Fall River FD - had submitted an emergency petition to the NFPA to eliminate a specific safety standard test currently required for the certification of turnout gear. The standard mandates that the moisture barrier of turnout gear maintain water resistance after more than 40 hours of exposure to ultraviolet light. But only turnout gear manufactured with PFAS can meet this standard.
"We still can’t get completely PFAS-free gear, so studies like this will help us," Mitchell said. "We’ll be armed with more definitive information to try to change the standards."
In its decision handed down last year, the NFPA Standards Council members acknowledged the concerns regarding PFAS, “but express concern that removing this test without understanding how removal will affect the moisture barrier could inherently be a serious risk to firefighter safety given the barrier is a primary protection from water and other common liquids, including chemicals and bloodborne pathogens encountered.”
At the time, members of the Nantucket Fire Department blasted the decision by the NFPA Standards Council.
"They don't seem to have an appetite for saving firefighters from unnecessary deaths,” said Nate Barber, a Nantucket firefighter who blames his recent testicular cancer diagnosis on his exposure to PFAS "My one firefighter nut is bigger than all their pistachios.”
The lead investigator for the “Firefighter Turnout Gear PFAS Study,” is Dr. Courtney Carignan, an exposure scientist and environmental epidemiologist at Michigan State University. She was on the island back in March with a team collecting blood samples as well as skin wipes from the firefighters before and after they participated in a series of drills to simulate working conditions. The results from the skin wipes likely won't be available until the end of the year.
During the study last March, the firefighters who participated were all wearing their turnout gear - the very equipment that is supposed to protect them - which has become a source of frustration and anxiety among firefighters nationwide due to the presence of PFAS chemicals used in the manufacturing of the special fabric.
"I think about it every time I look at it," Mitchell said. "I’ve read so much about it and spent so much time thinking about, so I only put it on when I have to. But I’m not happy about it and take it off as quickly as I can."
While their efforts to lobby the NFPA last year came up short, another opportunity is on the horizon. The NPFA is currently consolidating a number of standards related to PPE, a process which provides for a public comment period, which is now open.
“The slow movement in PFAS regulation compelled us to apply for a community grant that supported moving towards safer alternatives where they are available,” the Nantucket PFAS Action Group said in a statement about the study. “We felt that the high rates of cancer in the fire service highlighted the importance of reducing exposures whenever possible.”
All photos by Kit Noble