Firefighters know facing danger on the frontlines is part of the job. But could the gear they use to keep them safe be putting them in danger? Hank Phillippi Ryan investigates.
When the call comes in – firefighters jump into action to protect us.
“We’d break into the house and search top to bottom for anybody that might be in there,” Paul Cotter said.
And they hope the gear they’re wearing will protect them.
For more than 27 years, Worcester firefighter Paul Cotter suited up and sped off to fight flames, face danger and save lives.
“I loved it. It was my whole life,” Paul said.
But in 2014, Paul had to wage a different fight.
He was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“It’s so shocking, you don’t really know what to think,” Paul said.
He and his wife Diane Cotter knew cancer was a leading cause of death for firefighters.
“I keep a list now. I have thirty-five names. These are just firemen that I worked with in my era, all diagnosed with cancers,” Paul said.
Diane wanted to find out why.
With no scientific background or training the former hair stylist turned into an investigator.
“I began researching,” Diane said.
Diane focused on the water-resistant protective suits that all firefighters are required to wear on every call.
She collected dozens of them and found a physics professor to test them.
“When we saw the results, I thought to myself, ‘Oh, my gosh, she’s correct.’ It was scary,” Dr. Graham Peaslee said.
He and his research team at the University of Notre Dame found the suits contained toxic, man-made chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS.
“That was startling to me. I was like, ‘That made me mad.’ I was like, ‘OK, this has got to be told.’ We said, ‘This presents an exposure risk to the firefighter,'” Dr. Peaslee said.
PFAS have been linked to cancer.
“This gear is being worn every day by or more or less every municipal firefighter. They’re putting it on in the morning. They’re wearing it to work. They’re living in this gear. They’re working in this gear. They’re fighting fires in this gear,” Dr. Peaslee said.
Paul and Diane were shocked.
“I couldn’t believe that it was allowed to happen to us,” Paul said.
“I was sick, I was sick to my stomach,” Diane said.
We found there are no regulations banning PFAS in firefighting gear in Massachusetts.
The firefighters’ union wants to change that.
“We shouldn’t wear clothes that are going to hurt us, but until something is in place, we have no choice. We have to wear the gear. We’re not going to stop responding to fires,” Rich MacKinnon Jr., president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts said.
Firefighting jackets without any PFAS are starting to be manufactured.
But they are hard to get, and it will be expensive for cities and towns to buy new gear.
“I’m quite concerned about every man and woman on the front line today,” Diane said.
The Nantucket Fire Department was one of the first in the country to get the new jackets.
Paul hopes other departments will protect their firefighters in this important way.
“We want change for future generations of firefighters,” Paul said.
Paul is cancer-free now. He supports two bills on Beacon Hill that would eventually ban PFAS in firefighting gear.
Here are links to the bills:
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