By Monica Sager
METHUEN, Mass — After returning from a fire, Methuen Lieutenant Jim McLachlan follows procedure to carefully take off his turnout gear, place them in the extractor washing machine and hope that all the chemicals are cleared when he needs to wear it again.
McLachlan and other firefighters immediately shower and change their clothes as well, all as precautions against the "forever chemicals," Per- and Poly-Fluorinated substances, so often used in firefighting.
"It's a dangerous job," McLachlan said. "We try to protect ourselves the best we can."
Methuen City Council approved an ordinance recently to address the issue of these chemicals, commonly going by the acronymn PFAS, and the protection against them in firefighter turnout gear.
PFAS are used in durable water repellent finish and coating, which is applied by firefighters' turnout gear as a repellent to water and oil, which is in accordance with the National Fire Protection Association's 1971 standards. The PFAS serve as a moisture barrier in the gear.
Methuen's ordinance lays out that as of June 30, 2024 the City of Methuen will not purchase firefighter gear unless it is PFAS-free or contains a permanent label indicating whether the gear contains the chemicals. Unlike other fire departments, Methuen firefighters have two sets of turnout gear so that one can be extracting while the other is worn.
"We're trying to go after these chemical companies to stop producing the PFAS and to get us new gear," McLachlan said.
Other efforts have also addressed the PFAS used in firefighting foam — a spray used to extinguish flames when water won't do the job.
Studies show the exposure to PFAS has health effects that relate to issues like digestion, immunity, reproductive systems, behavioral development and circulation. PFAS have also been linked to cancer, which is the leading cause of death for firefighters.
"Mayor Perry and the Methuen City Council, in partnership with the Methuen Fire Department, have an opportunity to lead the way at the local level and join broader efforts to advocate to ban PFAS-laden firefighting foams," the ordinance states.
Only a handful of companies sell firefighter turnout gear, including coats, trousers, coveralls, helmets, footwear and gloves. As of last year, most manufacturers offer PFAS-free durable water repellent, but the expanded-polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE) moisture barriers still contain and emit PFAS.
Section 8.62 of the National Fire Protection Association's 1971 standards requires a light degradation resistance test for "moisture barrier materials." This requirement is preventing PFAS-free moisture barrier alternatives from becoming available.
"With everything that is burning, a lot of the plastic chemicals, it's dangerous," McLachlan said. "The gear that protects us shouldn't be causing cancer also."
Numerous states have enacted or proposed regulations on firefighting foam. Massachusetts has an interagency task force as well as a 2019 statewide program to eradicate nearly 150 thousand pounds of the toxic foam.
Currently, the only prevention measures for firefighters are to not take their turnout gear into living areas, placing the gear in sealed containers and washing their hands after handling the gear.
"Old firefighting foams contain PFAS compounds that have been identified as posing a significant risk to human health, so we are proud of this innovative initiative's success to eradicate these harmful materials," Governor Charlie Baker said in a press release at the time.
The Protecting Firefighters from Adverse Substances Act became federal law at the end of last year to develop education materials about reducing PFAS exposures and how to prevent environmental contamination.
Two other bills were introduced in 2022 to ban the manufacturing, importation and distribution of PFAS firefighting foam as well as to establish compensation benefits for federal firefighters battling cancer.
The Commonwealth's efforts
Massachusetts, along with many other states, faces upcoming public health issues from PFAS.
The Baker-Polito Administration allotted $28.4 million in two supplemental budgets for water infrastructure and PFAS testing. Within that, $8.4 million was set aside to test water supplies for PFAS for grants for remediation in Public Water Systems. The additional $20 million was appropriated to the Commonwealth's Clean Water Trust, which provides financing through construction loans to communities to address the contamination issues.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection adopted a PFAS drinking water standard in 2020. The standard limits the sum of six types of PFAS chemicals.
Methuen, Lawrence, Andover, Lowell, and a few other cities had their river supplies sampled. The data suggested compliance with the Department of Environmental Protection's drinking water standard.
Then-Attorney General Maura Healey sued 13 manufacturers of PFAS in May 2022 for causing millions of dollars of damages to communities across Massachusetts by knowingly contaminating water sources, groundwater and other natural resources.
"The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection is committed to continuing our nation-leading efforts to combat PFAS contamination in public drinking water, private wells and other sources of exposure, and will continue to provide funding and technical assistance to water systems working to address PFAS contamination," said Fabienne Alexis, MassDEP spokesperson.
The EPA, however, expanded upon these standards this year by proposing regulations to target two particular PFAS: PFOA and PFOS. The proposal would limit the chemicals to what experts equate to about four droplets of water per an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
"PFAS occurred above EPA's 2022 health advisory levels in at least 18 percent of states' water systems, which served 29 percent of the systems' total populations," a report on six states from the United States Government Accountability Office in September 2022 notes.
There are currently over 1,600 active public water systems in the Commonwealth. They provide majority of drinking water to Massachusetts' residents, from large municipal systems to schools, workplaces and condominiums.
Massachusetts was chosen with the other states to be part of the study for its already in place regulations. The Commonwealth, as well as New Hampshire and New Jersey, had the highest percentage of water systems with PFOA and / or PFOS, occurring at about 37%, 35% and 40% respectively.
Massachusetts had the highest percentage of its populations served by water systems with PFAS occurrences at or above the standards of four per trillion, the lowest reliably quantified level by most laboratories.
These systems would have to change how they run to be in accordance with the new EPA regulations.
"The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection has implemented some of the toughest standards in the country," Alexis said. "MassDEP will work with public water systems with PFAS levels that exceed the proposed EPA standard and provide any necessary guidance."
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