Firefighters across the country are worried about a potential workplace hazard they say they face. Cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters – and there’s a new theory as to why.
Many members of the firefighting community believe that toxins are not only present in the fires they fight, but also in their bunker gear. Dozens of firefighters filed lawsuits this week alleging the gear they wear – designed to protect them from fires – is making them sick.
The lawsuits claim that the chemicals used to make their equipment flame-, water-, and oil-resistant carry a hidden hazard that can cause devastating illnesses.
The chemicals are known as PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are a group of man-made compounds that make pans nonstick and materials waterproof or flame retardant, among other things. The lawsuits claim that PFAS are associated with adverse health effects, including cancer, in protective equipment worn by firefighters.
The plaintiffs do not blame the fire departments they served. They are seeking damages from the companies that make PFAS and make turnout gear. In addition, fire-fighting foam manufacturers were named as defendants. The foam helps fight fires but also contains PFAS.
All of the defendants have denied any wrongdoing. Defendants claim that the weight of scientific evidence does not show that PFAS in their products cause harm to people at current or past levels, including cancer. They add that their products are safe, meet or exceed applicable industry standards, and enable firefighters to do their jobs safely and efficiently.
Brockton, Massachusetts veteran firefighter Joe Marchetti has worn turnout gear on every call for years. Throughout his service as a firefighter, he rose through the ranks to become deputy chief of his department. But from now on, he won’t let this emblematic symbol of his profession, once worn like a second skin, pass in front of his garage.
“I’m not going to bring it home, with what we know now about the response equipment, the chemicals in it,” said Marchetti, “CBS Mornings” co-host Tony Dokoupil.
In 2016, at the age of 46, Marchetti was diagnosed with prostate cancer – a diagnosis he says was caused by exposure to chemicals in turnout gear.
Last year, a blood test revealed that Marchetti’s PFAS levels were significantly higher than those of the general population.
“These chemicals have long been known to cause harm. And this equipment was provided to us to protect ourselves,” Marchetti said.
“They’re called ‘the forever chemicals’ and once we make some of them they last forever, they just migrate through different systems,” said University of Notre Dame physics professor Graham Peaslee. “If they are inhaled or ingested by humans, they will end up in your body and stay there for many years.”
He was already investigating the presence of PFAS in the environment when the wife of another firefighter with prostate cancer convinced him to take a look at the turnout gear.
At the nuclear research lab on campus, Peaslee’s team analyzed 30 different sets of protective gear – noting an outer shell, moisture barrier and thermal liner.
“We observed PFAS. They are in large quantities. And they are coming off. The outer layer of this equipment was very fluorinated and the moisture barrier is very fluorinated,” he said. “It’s bad.”
Later studies co-authored by Peaslee confirmed the presence of PFAS in other turnout gear. His research was cited in the lawsuits.
Meanwhile, the firefighting community is struggling with staggering cancer rates. Since 2015, nearly three out of four firefighters added to the IAFF Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial have died from so-called occupational cancer. Even more have been diagnosed.
Marc Stelling, fire captain for the town of Gilroy, California, discovered he had stage one cancer after an accident caused a tumor to burst on his kidney.
“When I was lying in that hospital bed for eight days, it brought me down. I considered myself a pretty tough guy. But lying there helpless, trying to figure out what was going on, it was a any ‘other game,’” Stelling said.
Teresa Mauldin, a retired firefighter investigator from San Jose, Calif., has battled multiple cancers.
“I had breast cancer in both breasts. I had a double mastectomy. And then in the fourth year the bladder cancer came back. So for four years I fought and I didn’t have everything just couldn’t stay at work,” she said.
Mauldin and Stelling are now cancer-free, but retired San Jose Fire Captain Dan Stapp is not. He underwent radiotherapy and hormone therapy for prostate cancer.
“My understanding is it’s just going to be there, and it just depends on how aggressively we take care of it and how aggressively – the cancer itself – becomes,” Stapp said.
All three believe they would have been cured of cancer without their uniforms. They joined a lawsuit filed in 2020 alleging that PFAS in their equipment caused their illnesses. They are also seeking damages from the companies that make PFAS and make turnout gear. None of them ever considered that wearing their turnout gear could be a risk.
“It was so ingrained in us that it was a matter of safety. It’s what I wore. It’s what I let my daughter wear because she wanted to look like mom,” said Mauldin said.
Marchetti married into a family of firefighters, so it was only natural that his son would follow.
“It’s dangerous work and you know it, knowing that his equipment is supposed to protect him [Joe] and keeping him hurt hurt him and changed him, that makes me…angry. And that could potentially change the other members of my family…my son. I can’t even understand,” his wife Jen Marchetti said.
Joe Marchetti joins dozens of firefighters in the new lawsuits also seeking damages from PFAS and hookup manufacturers.
After surgery to remove his prostate, he was cured of cancer, but the side effects of the operation forced him to retire eight years early.
“I haven’t been able to spend eight years with, you know, my brothers at the fire station. Eight years I can’t share this experience with my son. There’s a lot to miss,” he said. he declares.