By Earl Rinehart
The Columbus Dispatch
CINCINNATI — The turnout gear that firefighters are encouraged to wear for protection against toxic chemicals at fire scenes could itself be a hazard, according to a lawyer who's demanding a study be done for a group with "unusually high rates of cancer."
Cincinnati lawyer Robert A. Bilott notified U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt last month that he intends to sue the government unless work begins on developing the study. The letter also was sent to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
The chemicals that concern Bilott are perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoralkyl, collectively known as PFAs. They were used in firefighting foam and turnout coats worn by firefighters. They are popular because of their slick surfactant properties that help turnout coats shed oil, gasoline and hazardous chemicals and foam spread.
In his letter, Bilott gave the officials until Nov. 5 to respond to avoid "a citizen's suit."
He had not heard back from the officials as of Friday. A Dispatch request for an EPA interview also went unanswered.
Bilott has experience fighting PFAs in court. In 2000, he sued DuPont on behalf of 3,500 plaintiffs who claimed to have been sickened by water tainted with perfluorooctanoic acid, a PFOA commonly called C8, dumped into the Ohio River. He alleged it killed a farmer's cows and sickened humans. A panel of scientists concluded there was a probable link between C8 and kidney and testicular cancer and four other ailments. In February, DuPont agreed to settle for $670 million.
Now, Bilott is concerned the same chemicals are contributing to the high incidence of cancer among firefighters, who are 14 percent more likely to contract cancer than the general public, according to "Unmasked," an investigative series of stories in The Dispatch last week. The newspaper found that firefighters are dying more from cancer than from fires because they don't always wear the gear that protects them from hazardous materials.
"For many years, unusually high rates of cancer and other adverse health effects have been observed among our nation's firefighters and emergency responders, particularly among responders who handle or use firefighting foam … or wear gear treated or made with such PFAs materials," he wrote in his letter to Pruitt.
He recommended the government form a science panel, like the one convened for the DuPont/C8 trial.
Representatives of the chemical industry said such a panel is unnecessary because the hazardous PFAs were phased out in 2015 per a voluntary program.
"For the most part the industry has moved to C6, which has already been studied and shown is not toxic," said Jessica Bowman, senior director for Global Fluoro-Chemistry for the American Chemistry Council.
Bowman said Class B firefighting foam is still made with PFOA but is reserved for hazardous spills, such as tanker-truck crashes or rail-car collisions involving fuel spills. Most cities use Class A foam that is biodegradable and doesn't have the same hazardous properties.
While PFAs have known detrimental health effects, chemicals such a C6 have "very different profiles from a human health" perspective, she said.
Bilott would not comment on studies of C6. However, while fighting DuPont, he was skeptical of DuPont's claims that its laboratory had adequately tested C8 and approved its use as safe for people. Years later, the science panel said there was a probable link between the chemical and cancer.
Bill Houk is president of the Ohio Fire Chiefs' Association. He's unfamiliar with Bilott's concern, but wouldn't oppose the study he suggests.
"I think we would support gathering more information," Houk said. "Every fire chief is trying to make sure his firefighters go home every day."
His gut reaction is there might be something to what Bilott says. But until there's a decision otherwise, he knows donning the gear to fight the hazard outweighs the possible danger of wearing it.
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