HomeTop StoriesFirefighters grapple with the risks of foam laced with toxic 'forever chemicals'

Firefighters grapple with the risks of foam laced with toxic ‘forever chemicals’

At Fire Station 22 in Bellbrook, Ohio, Lt. Jay Leach helped remove buckets of firefighting foam known as aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) – a tool undeniably effective at suppressing and smothering fires, but also laced with PFAS, or so-called “forever chemicals,” now linked to several forms of cancer.

“Most firefighters who have come into this job know the inherent risks, but we have never known that the gear and equipment we use will kill us,” Leach said.

Cancer was the cause of 72% of deaths among active-duty firefighters last year, according to the International Association of Firefighters. A separate study found that smoke inhalation causes only 4% of deaths among active-duty firefighters.

For Leach, the heartache of cancer knows no bounds.

His wife, Tracy, was a firefighter for 25 years. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, despite no family history of cancer.

“It pretty much destroyed her body,” Leach said. “And then, in December 2022, she was diagnosed as incurable and two weeks later, on Christmas Eve, she died.”

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Leach now carries a photo of Tracy in his fire helmet when he goes out. Although he cannot conclusively prove that PFAS from the firefighting foam were the cause of his wife’s cancer, Leach said he believes “with all his heart” they were the source.

In a statement, the American Chemistry Council, an industry group for chemical companies, said it supports restrictions on the use of AFFF, but added: “All PFAS are not the same. It is not scientifically accurate or appropriate to group them together when considering safety risks. .”

For Leach, handing over buckets of AFFF for destruction was a purification.

A safer foam now exists, but tens of thousands of gallons of AFFF still litter fire stations across America. Thirty-four states have introduced policies to ban or restrict the use of AFFF, and Ohio is the first state to commit to eliminating it entirely.

But the risk of PFAS does not only come from AFFF. The chemicals have been in other firefighting equipment for decades. PFAS help repel water and pollutants, but when you put on the gear, you’re wrapping yourself in suspected carcinogens.

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“We sweat, our pores open and chemicals can get into our bodies forever,” Leach said.

He told CBS News that, now that he has been working for 19 years, he is much more afraid of cancer than he is of fires.

“I love my job, but at the end of the day I think, ‘Is it worth it?'”

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