February 14, 2023

House advances pilot blood testing program, aims to show how PFAS makes firefighters sick

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South Bend Fire's Carl Buchanon and other Indiana fire chiefs gathered at the state capitol Tuesday to discuss issues with lawmakers. - Adam Yahya Rayes/IPB News

South Bend Fire's Carl Buchanon and other Indiana fire chiefs gathered at the state capitol Tuesday to discuss issues with lawmakers.

Adam Yahya Rayes/IPB News

PFAS chemicals help protect firefighters by repelling water and oils off their gear. They’re also used to make fire-suppressing foams “extremely effective.”

Firefighters were found to be more likely to get diagnosed with cancer and more likely to die from it, according to research by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Lawmakers and researchers believe the presence of PFAS class of chemicals in their gear is likely a key reason for this disparity. PFAS have also been linked to other health issues.

Several bills this session aim to help Indiana draw attention to this harmful class of chemicals’ impact on firefighters – but alternatives aren’t available.

“What we're finding out is that same piece of equipment that we think is helping us is also hurting us to a certain degree,” South Bend Fire Chief Carl Buchanon said in an interview.

South Bend’s fire department lost several firefighters to cancer in recent years, Buchanon said. In early January, firefighter Mike Brown retired from the department after 20 years. Weeks later, he was diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer and then died on Feb. 9.

“So that hit home more so than even some of our other previous firefighters that have succumbed to cancer,” Buchanan said. “We all understand what our risk is in this profession and we dedicate our lives faithfully and willingly.”

But, he said, firefighters should be able to expect not to have the dangers of work follow them into retirement.

READ MORE: Bill would require labels for firefighting gear with PFAS, even though none are PFAS-free

 

 

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Rep. Maureen Bauer (D-South Bend) said cases like Brown’s inspired her to author House Bill 1219 with the help of fire chiefs and the Professional Firefighters Union of Indiana. The bill would create a pilot blood-testing program that up to 1,000 firefighters can volunteer to participate in. The House passed HB 1219 with unanimous support Tuesday.

“There is no way for firefighters to even know if they've been exposed or if they have higher elevated levels,” Bauer said. “This [testing program] is just giving them one more tool to be able to monitor their own health and kind of connect the dots between those statistics and what we believe is true with those elevated [PFAS] levels.”

There currently aren’t any manufactured alternatives to firefighter moisture barriers with PFAS in them.

“There's not a replacement as of yet,” said Tony Murray, president of the state’s Professional Fire Fighters Union. “But I think working together [with manufacturers], we can find a suitable replacement that provides protection without the toxins.”

The legal safety standards for firefighter gear may be getting in the way of manufacturers' ability to use a different chemical, Murray said.

“We believe that this [testing program] will help accelerate that new gear on the market,” Bauer said. “And hopefully, the department departments themselves will be set up to phase out that old gear and bring in new gear when it's available.”

HB 1219 originally appropriated $200,000 from the state’s general fund for this testing program. But that funding was stripped out by the House Ways and Means Committee. Bauer said she’s confident the pilot will be fully funded as the legislature hashes out a new state budget in the coming days. Plus, she said, there are opportunities for federal grants to support the state’s efforts.

 

 

Adam is our labor and employment reporter. Contact him at arayes@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @arayesIPB.

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