Fire Fighters Lawsuit Filed Over Cancer-Causing PFAS Chemicals in Safety Gear

The lawsuit claims the standards set by the NFPA were part of a deal to sell safety gear laden with cancer-causing PFAS chemicals to fire fighters.

An international union of fire fighters has filed a lawsuit against the agency that sets safety standard for their equipment, claiming it forced members to use gear exposed them to cancer-causing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

The complaint (PDF) was filed in Massachusetts Superior Court by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), which represents 334,000 fire fighters and emergency responders in the U.S. and Canada. The lawsuit accuses the National Fire Protection Association, Inc. (NFPA), the defendant, of setting standards which effectively required fire fighting protective equipment to contain PFAS, exposing emergency responders for years to the toxic chemicals.

PFAS are commonly called “forever chemicals”, since they are known to build up in the human body, causing a number of different types of cancer and diseases. However, they have been widely used in recent decades in both aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) used to fight petroleum-based fires, as well as fire fighters’ turnout and bunker gear.

Manufacturers of PFAS chemicals and safety equipment now face thousands of fire fighter cancer lawsuits, involving allegations that years of exposure to the chemicals caused testicular cancer, kidney cancer, pancreatic cancer, bladder cancer and other injuries. Although the manufacturers knew or should have known about the PFAS cancer risk, fire fighters allege they withheld important safety information and warnings for decades.

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In this latest lawsuit, the IAFF notes that in 2007 the NFPA released new standards which “effectively require the use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances,” in fire fighters’ bunker gear, in order to meet ultraviolet (UV) light degradation tests, which are to ensure at least 40 hours of intense light, sunlight and other UV exposures do not degrade the flame-resistant materials. However, those layers are in the middle of the gear, which critics say makes them unnecessary.

“The set 40 hours is the threshold where only PFAS passes,” the lawsuit notes. “UV light degradation is not a testing requirement for the outer shell of the ensemble, which is the only layer exposed to UV light during the course of the product’s normal use.”

The lawsuit claims the requirements were issued as a result of a deal with Lion Group In. and W.L. Gore & Associates, which manufactured the gear approved by the NFPA for fire fighters and emergency responders to use. To promote the sale of those products, the union claims the NFPA misrepresented and denied the safety risk of exposure to cancer-causing PFAS.

Concerns Over PFAS Chemicals in Safety Gear

In August 2022, the IAFF and the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association issued a warning to fire fighters, calling for them to reduce their PFAS exposure by limiting their use of turnout gear.

The groups warned that fire fighters will not be able to fully avoid the PFAS cancer risk until the chemicals are removed entirely from protective gear, and they called for the development and widespread availability of such gear. In the meantime, they indicate that fire fighters should limit the use of turnout gear to only emergency situations where it is required, and then suggested fire fighters remove it as soon as possible.

In addition, earlier this year researchers from Scotland warned that fire fighters face a 60% higher risk of dying from cancer than the general public, three times the risk of dying from malignant neoplasms, almost four times the risk of death from prostate cancer, triple the risk of death from myeloid leukemia, and twice the risk of dying from oesophagus, kidney and bladder cancer.

The researchers also found fire fighters were more than five times as likely to die from ischemic heart disease, and also faced increased risk of stroke, interstitial pulmonary diseases, kidney failure and musculoskeletal system diseases.

Fire Fighter PFAS Exposure Lawsuits

Claims brought throughout the federal court system against 3M Company, DuPont, Tyco Fire Products, Buckeye Fire Equipment Company, Kidde-Fenwal and other manufacturers of firefighting foam and protective equipment are now centralized in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, as part of a federal MDL or multidistrict litigation, since they each raise common questions of fact and law.

In addition to fire fighter lawsuits over the PFAS cancer risk, the litigation also includes a number of complaints brought by local water suppliers over the costs associated with removing PFAS chemicals from their water systems. The companies also face potential PFAS water contamination lawsuits that are now starting to be pursued by individuals who lived in areas that are known to have high levels of the chemicals in their water, usually around military bases, airports and other fire fighter training locations, where the chemicals seeped into the water supply.

As part of the coordinated management of the growing litigation, the U.S. District Judge presiding over the cases has established a “bellwether” program, where a small group of water supplier lawsuits are being prepared for early trial dates before lawsuits over the fire fighters cancer risk from AFFF are scheduled, to help gauge how juries are likely to respond to certain evidence and testimony that will be repeated throughout the claims.

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