By Dave Thompson
WORCESTER, Mass. — When Diane Cotter’s husband, Paul, was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, after 28 years of serving with the Worcester Fire Department, their world was shattered.
“He was just the picture of health, but his cancer was aggressive,” she said. His surgery left him unable to return to the job to which he’d dedicated his life.
“I saw him slipping away from me. It terrified me,” Cotter said Wednesday.
A frantic search for answers led Cotter into deep research, chemical testing, advocacy and flurries of Facebook messages that frequently got her account locked.
On Sunday, “Burned: Protecting the Protectors,” a documentary highlighting her fight to bring awareness to the presence of certain chemicals in firefighter turnout gear will be screened at the Hanover Theatre on Sunday at 6 p.m.
The event will feature a pre-screening performance by the Worcester Fire Brigade Pipe and Drum Band, as well as guest speakers including International Association of Firefighters President Ed Kelly and nuclear physicist Graham Peaslee, who performed a crucial study in the research, as well as a question-and-answer panel and a closing speech from Cotter.
The documentary, a collaboration between Ethereal Films, the Last Call Foundation and Footpath Pictures, produced by Mark Ruffalo, examines the presence of PFAS chemicals in turnout gear.
Cotter said not long after her husband’s prostate cancer diagnosis, she began researching occupational cancers in firefighters, then after reading a story about turnout gear that had deteriorated, checked Paul’s gear that was stored in their basement.
“I shined the flashlight, and I saw these dime, quarter, nickel size pieces of fabric that were missing.”
Cotter then “went literally balls to the wall,” reaching out to anyone who might have information, and said she soon heard story after story of firefighters with cancer, even in her own town.
“I sat at a table with six or eight other Worcester fire wives,” she said.
“One of the wives asked me, ‘What kind of cancer does Paul have?’ I said, ‘It’s prostate.’ Every single woman at that table picked her head up and said, ‘Mine too.’”
But for Cotter, it wasn’t as simple as spreading information everyone was glad to know. She said she received significant pushback, denials from companies that PFAS were present in their gear, and reticence to acknowledge the issue by authorities.
Attorney Daniel Blouin called Cotter’s fight “a David and Goliath story.”
“She was the person who looked under rocks to see where they’ve been hiding the truth.”
Blouin, one of the attorneys currently suing the National Fire Protection Association in state court in Dedham, said the International Association of Firefighters brought the case to his firm and others, who formed the legal team also planning multiple personal injury lawsuits on behalf of firefighters who have contracted cancer.
“We want to hold the corporations that put these poisons into their bunker gear accountable,” Blouin said.
Cotter, too, hopes the documentary brings about systemic change, not only in safety standards at gear production companies, but also in helping firefighters and their families educate themselves about occupational dangers.
“What we don’t like seeing is firefighters jogging in their turnout gear and babies wrapped in turnout gear for photos,” she said.
But the screening holds another personal connection for Cotter, whose father managed the theatre when it was previously known as The Palace.
“For me, it’s like going home,” she said.