Firefighters across the U.S. are filing lawsuits against PPE gear manufacturers, claiming that chemicals in their protective turnout gear caused cancer. The lawsuits focus on PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as “forever chemicals.”

Major companies like 3M and DuPont, along with nearly 40 other gear makers, are facing a mounting number of pending lawsuits. These actions may be nearing a tipping point at which a federal panel could consolidate them into a multidistrict litigation, or MDL.

In addition to the recent lawsuits from individual military and civilian firefighters, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) filed a lawsuit earlier this year against the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). This lawsuit aims at changing a current testing standard for protective gear that effectively requires using PFAS.

Sharp Rise in Firefighter Cancer Deaths

Cancer has replaced heart disease as the most significant cause of firefighter deaths in the line of duty, according to IAFF research. The organization reports that cancer caused 66% of firefighter deaths between 2002 and 2019. In 2022, three out of every four names added to the IAFF Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial Wall were due to occupational cancer.

“The current scientific research indicates that PFAS plays a direct role in firefighter cancer,” IAFF general president Edward Kelly said in a statement.

Separate studies conducted by the University of Notre Dame and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and cited in recent lawsuits found high levels of PFAS in the protective gear worn by firefighters. The researchers said their findings raise serious concerns about the long-term health consequences of exposure to such chemicals for firefighters.

PFAS can become toxic when exposed to high temperatures, posing a significant cancer risk to firefighters wearing this gear during their duties. Notre Dame researchers found “significantly high” PFAS levels in firefighters’ turnout gear.

NIST researchers discovered varying concentrations between layers and manufacturers. There are three layers of typical turnout gear; NIST research found the outer shell contained the highest levels, but concentrations were present in all three.

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Why Does Firefighter Gear Use ‘Forever Chemicals?’

Business and bureaucracy each play a role in using PFAS in protective firefighting equipment.

Firefighter turnout gear contains these “forever chemicals” because of their water- and oil-resistant properties and ability to prevent moisture-related burns.

Ahead of the recent lawsuits from individual firefighters, the IAFF filed a lawsuit against the NFPA. It’s aimed at changing a testing standard for protective gear that effectively requires using PFAS. Turnout gear must meet strict NFPA safety standards, and those standards are nearly impossible to meet without using PFAS.

“The very gear designed to protect firefighters, to keep us safe, is killing us,” Kelly said. NFPA’s standard “needlessly requires using PFAS in firefighter gear.” 

Firefighting Foam Prompts Thousands of PFAS Lawsuits

The lawsuits surrounding firefighter turnout gear echo a broader legal battle involving aqueous film forming foam (AFFF), a substance firefighters use to control stubborn fires.

The AFFF lawsuits, currently in a South Carolina MDL, focus on exposure to toxic chemicals and contamination of drinking water by PFAS. They accuse AFFF manufacturers of knowing the risks but failing to provide adequate warnings and involve 6,400 pending cases as of November 2023.