While the issues regarding aqueous film forming foam (AFFF), the fire suppressant material widely used by fire departments nationwide and globally, have been studied for years, a June 2020 scientific article argues that firefighters may be at risk for PFAS exposure from another source, as well – the firefighting gear that they wear when combating fires.
The article, “Another Pathway for Firefighter Exposure to Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances: Firefighter Textiles”, Environ. Sci. Technol. Lett. 2020 (Graham, Peaslee F., et al.), explains that firefighter’s personal protective equipment (PPE or “turnout gear”) is comprised of three layers — a thermal layer, worn closest to the skin, covered by a moisture barrier designed for water resistance and the outer shell. Peaslee’s team tested more than 30 samples of used and unused PPE from six specialty textile manufacturers in the United States and found them to be treated extensively with PFAS or constructed with fluoropolymers, a type of PFAS used to make textiles oil and water resistant. Peaslee and his team found high concentrations of fluoropolymers on the moisture barrier and outer shell. Peaslee argues that some of these chemicals have the ability to migrate off treated surfaces and materials, meaning the PFAS in the moisture barrier and outer shell of the PPE could potentially contaminate the thermal layer and come in direct contact with skin. Beyond dermal exposure, Peaslee also argues that even PFAS on the outer layer of turnout gear can be transferred to other absorption points on the body (sweat pores, oral ingestion, etc.) if firefighters touch the outer shell of their turnout gear after use.
The study also presented the theory that PFAs dust from firefighting turnout gear may contaminate fire stations and PPE manufacturing or distribution sites. Peaslee reported that dust samples taken from these facilities tested positive for fluorine, which is not a naturally occurring element.
The study is the first of its kind to study the potential for PFAS exposure from firefighting turnout gear; however, it is careful to point out that further studies on this subject are needed. Nevertheless, manufacturers and distributors of firefighting PPE, as well as townships, cities, and municipalities that have fire departments, need to pay close attention to this latest study and the follow up work that is sure to come. While many are searching for AFFF products that have PFAS substitutes due to the studies and press surrounding this product, it is doubtful that any entity has yet considered finding replacements for firefighting PPE for the reasons that Peaslee’s article delineates. Prudent risk management would advise that, at this point, at the very least this subject be closely watched by all those affected.
CMBG3 Law is following judicial, legislative, and administrative developments relating to PFAS. More information about the services we can provide, including risk assessments, to ensure your business is ready for any intersection with these substances can be found on our PFAS Litigation page.
Our attorneys have been at the forefront of PFAS issues, including giving presentations as to the future waves of litigation stemming from PFAS issues. For more information, please contact any of our PFAS – Toxic Torts Team: Jessica Deyoe, Suzanne Englot, Alexandra Fraher,or John Gardella.