STAMFORD – Manufacturers haven’t yet figured out how to make firefighting gear without cancer-causing chemicals.
Still, some city representatives want the administration to commit to purchasing it as soon as it hits the market.
The new gear will be expensive, about $4,000 per firefighter, and departments all over the United States will want it at the same time. It will take some effort to get it, representatives said.
So members of the Board of Representatives’ Public Safety Committee drew up a resolution saying that they, the city’s legislators, and Mayor Caroline Simmons, the chief executive, pledge to swiftly obtain safe gear for firefighters.
“When you’re on the job, there’s always a risk you won’t make it home because of the duty itself – fighting a fire,” said the committee chair, city Rep. Jeff Stella, a retired New York Police Department officer. “At the same time, you’re putting on your gear knowing all too well it can shorten your life. Firefighters shouldn’t be dying of cancer because of what they’re wearing.”
Turnout gear and the foam used to suppress flames contain per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, or PFAS. Called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down easily in the environment, PFAS are the subject of litigation nationwide.
PFAS are found not just in the suits firefighters wear to enter burning buildings. It’s in their uniforms, too.
“These are really, really nasty chemicals. We have firefighters dying of cancer left, right, and center, many years before their time,” said city Rep. Phil Berns. “We want to urge the administration to go on the record that they will move on this.”
His fellow committee member, city Rep. Bobby Pavia, cited a statistic in the resolution that says that cancer was the reason for 75 percent of all firefighter deaths in 2022, and has surpassed heart disease as the leading cause of death among firefighters.
“This is an emergency, and all we’ve been doing in this committee is discussing it,” said Pavia, whose firefighter grandfather died of cancer. “This is what people hate about government. Things don’t get done.”
But the committee held the resolution nonetheless.
Waiting for a chief
One reason is that Simmons’ nominee for fire chief, now-Assistant Chief Rex Morris, is expected to be approved by the full board on Monday.
Morris, who has been with the Stamford Fire Department for 10 years and was with the Fire Department of New York for 40 years, “can speak in depth on this issue,” Public Safety Director Lou DeRubeis told the committee.
“It’s a priority for him,” DeRubeis said. If Morris is named fire chief and “were to address this topic with this committee, it would be very insightful,” DeRubeis said.
The second reason the committee held the resolution until next month is that PFAS-free gear has not been developed, and no one knows how long it will take.
“There was a prototype, but it didn’t work out,” Stella said. “The FDNY is testing some gear. But getting it could take a year, five years. It’s hard to say.”
City Rep. Karen Camporeale said she wanted the resolution held for a third reason. The resolution originally said the city “shall purchase” PFAS-free protective gear, but a city attorney took out “shall,” removing its teeth, Camporeale said.
“It’s not strong enough. We have to check with the law department, but if we can’t put the word ‘shall’ back in, we should bring the mayor to this meeting,” Camporeale said. “If it’s not mandated that the mayor has to do this, I think we need the mayor to make a statement that she is going to make sure this will happen when the gear is available.”
Committee members voted to request that Simmons, a city attorney, Morris and others attend their February meeting.
“It would be appropriate for the mayor to take the lead in how we help firefighters,” Pavia said after this month’s meeting. “She doesn’t have to have the answers. She just has to be at the table for this conversation.”
No more Nomex
Paul Anderson, president of the Stamford firefighters’ union, Local 786 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said he thinks the administration will be on board with purchasing PFAS-free gear once it’s available. It will cost the city roughly $1.5 million, Anderson said.
The administration has already worked with the union to replace firefighter uniforms made with Nomex, a heat- and flame-resistant fiber, Anderson said. The new uniforms will be 100 percent cotton, he said.
“We mandated Nomex in our contract because of a chemical fire that happened years ago. Firefighters were wearing polyester clothing and got burned badly,” Anderson said. “We were told Nomex is fire-rated and the way to go, but anything that is fire-rated is treated with PFAS. These manufacturers are the ones who have been poisoning us all along.”
Thousands of firefighters across the country have sued PFAS manufacturers, charging they knew the chemicals are dangerous, particularly when exposed to extreme heat. PFAS breaks down into fast-moving particles that can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin.
PFAS exposure increases the risk of kidney, prostate, pancreas, bladder, liver, breast and testicular cancers, infertility, and birth defects in offspring.
One company, 3M, has said it will stop manufacturing PFAS by the end of next year. Another, Gore & Associates, has said firefighters are being harmed by exposure to cancer-causing chemicals in fires, not by their products.
Last year Congress passed legislation requiring that the U.S. Fire Administration and other agencies set guidelines for reducing PFAS exposure. A pending bill aims to authorize $25 million to develop PFAS alternatives in firefighter gear and foam.
PFAS allow products to resist heat, water and oils, and are used in the manufacture of not just firefighting gear and foam, but food packaging, nonstick cookware, stain-resistant carpeting and upholstery, waterproof clothing, cosmetics, and artificial turf.
Last week Connecticut Attorney General William Tong filed two lawsuits against 28 PFAS manufacturers, charging that they knowingly contaminated Connecticut water supplies and other natural resources. PFAS are so prevalent that they are found in the blood of nearly all humans, Tong said in his press release.
More than half the states in the country have filed similar suits.
In 2021, Connecticut banned use of firefighting foam in most circumstances, spending $2 million on a take-back program that collected tens of thousands of gallons from fire stations. The market offers a number of PFAS-free foams.
Now firefighters nationwide are filing lawsuits. Last month 100 Massachusetts lawmakers called on that state’s attorney general to join a lawsuit against PFAS manufacturers. The lawsuit is led by 10 firefighters from Worcester, Mass.
Grassroots efforts are important, Pavia said.
“If we don’t all have that urgency, we won’t have a solution for a long time,” he said.