By Suzanne Baker
NAPERVILLE, Ill. — Naperville took steps this week to reduce firefighters' exposure to harmful chemicals within the very suits they wear to shield against contaminants.
The Naperville City Council this week authorized spending up to $500,000 to replace all its front-line equipment to protect personnel and mitigate any potential risks associated with existing equipment.
Known as turnout or bunker gear, the fire-resistant clothing and accessories — pants, coat, hood, boots, gloves and helmet — are worn by every Naperville firefighter on every fire and vehicle accident response. The suits repel oil and water because they contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, a class of fluorinated chemicals.
But due to their oil- and water-resistant properties, PFAS don't break down easily and persist in the body and the environment, which is why they're often called "forever chemicals."
While safety standards prove turnout gear is the best line of defense for limiting exposure to fire contaminants, recent studies show the PFAS in the gear has been linked to increased rates of liver, kidney and other cancers.
A January 2023 report from the director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health states cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters likely due to their exposure to smoke and hazardous chemicals.
The International Association of Fire Fighters and Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association joined together to urge firefighters to take precautions to reduce exposure to the forever chemicals until PFAS can be removed from turnout gear.
To expedite the removal of PFAS from the Naperville department, fire Chief Mark Puknaitis requested the funding from the council at its Tuesday meeting.
Turnout gear consists of three layers: an outer shell, a moisture barrier and a thermal liner.
Puknaitis in a memo to the council said the shell poses the greatest threat of chemical breakdown because they are directly exposed to light and heat, and manufacturers now are producing PFAS-free shells.
While the liners still contain the chemicals, the city will need to replace those when PFAS-free alternatives become available, he said.
He added that no manufacturer currently offers completely PFAS-free firefighting gear.
Councilwoman Allison Longenbaugh said she was glad to see the change.
"As we know, cancer is one of the leading causes of death for firefighters, and being able to improve this is such a big deal," Longenbaugh said.
Each member of the Naperville Fire Department is outfitted with two sets of gear to prevent firefighters from reusing dirty gear if they head out on a new call. Studies also show wearing dirty gear raises the risk of exposure to hazardous substances.
Puknaitis said the backup sets will be rotated out following the current rotation.
Although the cost of the gear was unbudgeted, city officials said money is available in the capital projects fund as a result of other project delays.
Puknatis suggested there's a possibility of recouping some of the cost.
"This is not just a Naperville issue. This is an issue not only across the state but across the country because there are many others that purchased turnout gear with this unfortunate result," Puknaitis said.
There are a number of pending lawsuits from individuals and communities that are suing manufacturers and the agency that oversees standards.
"It's not class action yet, but it may turn out to be," Puknaitis said.
In March, the IAFF, the union that represents Naperville firefighters and paramedics and the more than 300,000 fire professionals across the United States and Canada, sued the National Fire Protection Association, accusing the body of establishing guidelines so that gear has to contain toxic PFAS chemicals to meet the voluntary standards.
The union also hired three law firms to push for changes to the national regulatory standards, demand all turnout gear be replaced with PFAS-free alternatives, and assist members and their families to seek compensation for PFAS-related injuries.