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A group of firefighters say some of their gear contains PFAS and may cause cancer

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Could the clothes that firefighters wear to protect themselves actually be making them sick? That's what a group of firefighters and their families are worried about. They say chemicals known as PFAS in the coats and pants worn during emergencies may possibly contribute to higher rates of cancer among firefighters. Gabrielle Emanuel of member station WBUR has more.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: In Diane Cotter's house, there's a room that looks like it's for knitting, with wicker baskets and soft yarns. But Cotter calls it her war room.

DIANE COTTER: This is where the research is done and strategies come into fruition. And it was a long time that I wasn't knitting because I was so immersed in the war.

EMANUEL: Cotter's war started in 2014, right after her husband was diagnosed with cancer. Complications from the treatment forced him to give up his career as a firefighter in Massachusetts. Soon, depression set in.

COTTER: While he was sitting in a reclining chair, slipping farther and farther away (crying), I began researching firefighter cancer.

EMANUEL: She wanted to know if his work could have caused his cancer. Cotter stayed up night after night. Eventually, she zeroed in on PFAS, a class of chemicals that were invented in the 1930s and are used in a wide range of products because they're good at making surfaces water repellent. Some types of PFAS have been linked to serious health concerns, like testicular cancer and kidney cancer. PFAS has long been a concern in firefighting foam, but Cotter says manufacturers wouldn't tell her if PFAS chemicals are in firefighters' thick jackets and pants. So she came up with a strategy.

COTTER: Emailing everybody that I could think of.

GRAHAM PEASLEE: I got one of 6,000 emails that she'd sent.

EMANUEL: Graham Peaslee is a physicist at the University of Notre Dame. He studies PFAS and agreed to test the gear. He says it took him a year to believe the results.

PEASLEE: It was staggering how much PFAS was in there. I had never seen anything like this.

EMANUEL: He recruited others to run tests. They got the same results.

PEASLEE: And so I was concerned at that point that it might affect the firefighter.

EMANUEL: Researchers have now found firefighters, on average, have higher PFAS levels in their blood than the general public. The revelations are prompting a reckoning. Many firehouses are debating how often to wear their protective equipment. Several state Houses have bills or laws about PFAS in gear, and now the battle has landed in court.

EDWARD KELLY: As firefighters, we know we have a dangerous job.

EMANUEL: Edward Kelly heads the International Association of Fire Fighters. His union is suing the National Fire Protection Association, a group that sets standards for firefighting gear. The lawsuit alleges the standards essentially require gear to have PFAS, and it claims the group is colluding with manufacturers to keep it that way.

KELLY: And that's wrong. We deserve better as firefighters. And quite frankly, the public deserves better. When we go out the door to a call, we're coming into your homes. It's flaking off us and flowing around your house.

EMANUEL: Federal regulators generally defer to the nonprofit organization on standards for firefighting gear. That group called the lawsuit meritless but declined interview requests. Seth Harper is a former employee of Gore, one of the main gear manufacturers. He says the type of PFAS it uses is safe.

SETH HARPER: We were hypersensitive to the issue of PFAS exposure because we were working with the product every single day.

EMANUEL: Yet Harper admits cancer rates among firefighters are a big concern. According to a federal study, firefighters are significantly more likely than others to get and die from cancer. But instead of blaming PFAS, Harper points to another cause.

HARPER: What we find today is that fires are burning hotter, faster and more carcinogenically than they have ever before.

EMANUEL: This is because modern products and building materials are much more dangerous when they burn than older materials. It's bad to breathe in the soot and particulates, but it's also a problem when it builds up on the skin. And Harper says wearing firefighting gear is one of the best defenses.

HARPER: If we warn people about PFAS in gear and that causes them to reduce the amount of protective gear that they are wearing, I think that that could be two steps backwards.

EMANUEL: Others counter that PFAS in gear is unnecessary. There are other ways to make something waterproof. From her war room, Diane Cotter says she's noticed more firefighters sharing their stories.

COTTER: If you look at my Facebook page, all day long you're going to see 35-year-old firefighters, 40-year-old firefighters with testicular cancer or kidney cancer (crying). And this was so unnecessary.

EMANUEL: Cotter is focused on reducing PFAS exposure, but she says, whatever the cause, the next generation of firefighters should not have cancer rates higher than the general population.

For NPR News, I'm Gabrielle Emanuel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Gabrielle Emanuel