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Firefighters say a part of the state budget will expose them to cancer-causing chemicals

National Park Service

The North Carolina legislature is in the midst of budget talks. But one element of the proposed budget poses a problem: a controversial training facility firefighters say could give them cancer.

The majority of firefighters who die in the line of duty don’t die from fire — they die from cancer.

For years, the assumption was that carcinogens from fire were the primary cause. But recent studies have found that PFAS — a category of cancer-causing and cancer-linked chemicals — are in their turnout gear and in the foam they use for certain severe fires.

Dana Sargent is the Executive Director of Cape Fear River Watch, and closely follows PFAS news — not just because of Chemours, but because of her two firefighter brothers.

“My brother who died of glioblastoma which is a brain cancer, died at 46 and you know, that is pretty, you know, pretty young to die of cancer,” she said. “Any firefighter you talk to is going to tell you about all the people in their house who have cancer.”

Her other brother still works at a firehouse in Chicago, and the family has carefully tracked news about cancer risk for firefighters. The National Institute for Health links the use of AFFF, a firefighting foam used for chemical fires, to elevated levels of PFAS in the bloodstream, and PFAS is linked to increased cancer risk.

“For firefighters, you know, they're if they're using this type of foam that just adds to their exposure to PFAS, which along with their turnout gear, and the burning fumes of any number of consumer items inside a house that have PFAS in them. So these are all dangers, the military has initiated a complete phase-out of AFFF for military firefighter installations," she said.

Even as the military phases out AFFF, the state legislature may enshrine the cancerous chemicals into firefighting training for years to come.

The Water Safety Act was a bill in the Senate that has now made it into the House budget bill. It includes buybacks of AFFF from local fire departments, but also creates an AFFF firefighting training site. The law originally only allowed for training with PFAS containing AFFF, but now allows for AFFF that doesn’t contain PFAS to also be used.

New Hanover County firefighter Laura Leigh has worked in the field for six years, and she’s appalled by the bill.

“That facility that wants to use firefighters as human guinea pigs, basically. And that's on AFFF foam, which causes cancer, and then it goes into our groundwater. It's very scary stuff," she said.

The 'guinea pig' reference is because the bill also provides research grants for human exposure studies on firefighters. To the first responders, it looked a whole lot like the legislature wanted to expose them to a potentially cancer-causing chemical, then let scientists see what it did to them.

“It's very difficult to wrap my head around it, like how just do the right thing, like, do the ethical and the moral right thing. And a lot of times they don't because they put special interests in front of that," Leigh said.

But New Hanover County Senator Michael Lee, a bill sponsor, says it's not about that. Instead, the aim is primarily to create the "Buyback program for all AFFF out there around our state." That component is supported by firefighters and advocates alike.

As for the health testing section, Lee wrote in a statement that it's not related to the AFFF testing facility. "The human exposure study is in full support of firefighters in that we need to better understand what they are exposed to, what is found in their bodies (and at what concentration levels), and what health effects might be occurring related to PFAS. This research has nothing to do with the training facility and everything to do with the exposure during fires given that much of what burns in a home is laden with PFAS."

Sargent says the original Water Safety Act was written badly, particularly around those health studies. "The original language was pretty disgusting and ridiculous and illegal," she said. But the newer language in the budget, which she and advocates pushed for, removed that component while retaining funding.

"So I'm all for that funding, firefighters are asking for it, they deserve it," Sargent said. "And you know, I think if that piece stays in, that would be a win for our firefighter community. But the training facility is dangerous, not only for firefighters, but for the community, because this is going to be AFFF hitting the ground."

While Senator Lee says the proposed facility would contain AFFF and prevent it from getting into the environment, it still isn't popular with firefighters.

The head of the statewide firefighter union, Scott Mullins, said he thinks it’s more of an education problem. He doesn't think there are many firefighters that support an entire new training facility to use AFFF foam.

“We just need to keep educating our legislators," he said.

There are alternatives to AFFF that can be used in serious chemical fires. And for training, Mullins said there’s no reason to use the cancer-causing stuff.

“There are also other types of foam out there that can essentially do the same thing, so there's really no need,” he explained. “The US military has figured this out, so they’re doing away with all testing in all foams.”

Mullins hopes the next version of the budget removes any recommendation that PFAS-filled foams are used at this proposed training facility. And he hopes to see more money from state and local budgets going to cancer screenings.

“It's just gonna save people's lives. The cancer screenings along with blood tests are very great ways for our people to beat cancer,” he said. “We've got to do more to protect the protectors.”

Editor's Note: After this article was published, Senator Lee responded to emails with comment. His full response is available below, and sections of it have been added to the above article for appropriate context.

Senator Michael Lee's statement:

"I consulted with the Collaboratory, the State Fire Chief and even had a call with Dana Sargent and other environmental advocates on the provision. Given the substantial investment, the Water Safety Act will appear in the budget (revised somewhat from the original).

"As you know, the bill (among other measures) was to provide a buyback program for all AFFF out there around our state. Local fire departments are essentially stuck with the AFFF since most do not use it and have not way to dispose of it. I was successful in getting my colleagues with a bi-partisan bill to implement a significant and expensive buyback program where most of it would be purchased and destroyed. I understand the challenges firefighters face with PFAS exposure through AFFF (when deployed), through their turnout gear and numerous other exposures as PFAS laden property (upholstery, furniture, clothes, cookware, packaging, etc.) that burn during a fire. The human exposure study is in full support of firefighters in that we need to better understand what they are exposed to, what is found in their bodies (and at what concentration levels), and what health effects might be occurring related to PFAS. This research has nothing to do with the training facility and everything to do with the exposure during fires given that much of what burns in a home is laden with PFAS.

"As for the training facility – it is my understanding that many departments are not training with AFFF on a regular basis. However, because it is the only effective means for certain types of fires, some teams would like to train with it a limited basis until there is an effective replacement. They do not want to train with it though unless it can be captured and that is what the facility was intended to do. The facility was not intended to expose firefighters for the purpose of researching exposure but to allow an environmentally safe facility (because it would capture the AFFF) if a fire department needed a facility to train with it."

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.