Kansas firefighter among first PFAS whistleblowers in protective gear

DERBY, Kan. (KSNW) – What started as a Massachusetts woman demanding answers has become a Kansas man’s quest to shed light on the dangers of PFAS in fire protection equipment.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), PFAS is short for polyfluoroalkyl substances, which is a group of chemicals used to make products resistant to heat, oil, stains, grease and at the water. This substance can be used on clothing, furniture, adhesives, food wraps, nonstick cooking surfaces, and even electrical wire insulation.

“At the end of 2016 I got an email from Diane Cotter…to be honest, at first I thought she was crazy,” Derby volunteer firefighter Jonathan Marr said.

In his spare time, Marr is editor of the website station-pride.com. He says after reading Cotter’s evidence of a potential risk of PFAS exposure, he knew she was onto something.

“It became pretty clear to me that something was wrong and, you know, we had to tell this story,” Marr said.

It was then that Marr and Cotter formed a committee with a small group of firefighters from across the country. After securing $20,000 in funding from the Last Call Foundation, the committee commissioned a formal study to test the amount of PFAS in protective gear.

“1.2 million firefighters wear this,” said Dr. Graham Peaslee, a Notre Dame professor who led the study.

Dr Peaslee says early tests showed the highest amount of the chemical fluorine in a textile he had ever seen.

“We were able to get it out of our gloves when handling the equipment,” Dr. Peaslee said. “I was a little worried because I looked at all the literature, and I didn’t see anyone else who said that, and I wondered how it could have been missed.”

“The amount of PFAS chemicals in the turnout gear was about 14,000 times what is allowed in drinking water,” Marr said.

Dr. Peaslee’s study was the first officially to document PFAS in fire protection equipment, creating a domino effect of other studies nationwide. This push eventually led to a study by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), the country’s largest firefighters union.

“In some cases, this study not only validated our results, but they performed worse,” Marr said.

The IAFF formally warned against PFAS concerns on Tuesday, a step Marr hopes will save thousands of firefighters in the future.

“What most firefighters have been exposed to so far is a done deal, and you know, all we can do is try to improve that for the next generation of firefighters,” Marr said. .

When Kansas fire departments might receive PFAS-free equipment is unclear. Marr says the current national standard requires protective gear to be made with PFAS. This standard should be amended before new equipment is manufactured.

Marr expects this to take several years.

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