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Largest US firefighter union announces legal action over 'forever chemicals' in PPE

Cancer is the number one killer of firefighters, with career-related cancers causing more than 60% of firefighter deaths, according to the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), the largest firefighters' union in the nation. In a news conference Monday, IAFF said the cancers are caused by toxic chemicals called PFAS, also known as "forever chemicals," that coat many products.

Those products include "turnouts," the protective gear worn by firefighters.

“We need to combat what is killing us,” said Edward Kelly, IAFF president. “For years, corporate interests have put profits over our lives. It stops now."


The union said it retained lawyers in an effort to change regulatory standards and demand PFAS-free gear. It said about a dozen firefighters are part of a lawsuit and the union expects more will join in.

Deputy Chief James Gaboury with San Diego Fire and Rescue said the department buys the safest gear possible, and has been setting standards of its own as leadership became aware of dangers. Those standards include contamination procedures after fires, and issuing two sets of turnouts to firefighters.

"This has been a culture change for the fire industry," Gaboury said. "Dirty isn't cool any more."

Gaboury said he doesn't know if there is gear to protect firefighters that is 100%free of PFAS. He noted their current turnouts have a trace amount of the chemicals that is deemed acceptable because it's "on the moisture barrier that’s in between the outer shell and inner shell that never touches our skin."
Gaboury said he can’t do anything to change past exposures, but will continue doing everything he can to keep his firefighters safe. "My goal right now is not to be angry but is to try to help try to find a solution," he said. 

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