New NIST study: Firefighters turnout gear release more PFAs the more they are used and exposed to wear and tear
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“Using PFAS in turnout gear may or may not be an acceptable risk, given all the other hazards that firefighters already face... This data will help people weigh those costs and benefits.”
NIST chemist and co-author John Kucklick.
A US study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in 2023 showed that the textiles used in protective clothing worn by firefighters often contain PFAS, a class of chemicals that has been linked to an increased risk of cancer and other health effects.
A recent follow-up study from NIST shows that the textiles used in turnout gear tend to release more PFAS when they are subject to wear and tear - meaning more chemicals are released the more they are used.
In the recent study, researchers stressed the firefighting textiles using various techniques: abrasion, heat, laundering and exposing them to UV-light and high humidity. After, they measured the PFAs present after the textiles were stressed.
“The firefighter community has raised concerns about PFAS in turnout gear, but before these studies, there was very little data that address those concerns,” said NIST chemist and study co-author Rick Davis.
“Based on these studies we can confidently say that more than 20 types of PFAS might be present in firefighter gear and that the amount and type of PFAS vary depending on the type of textile used and the amount of stress it has been subjected to.”
Both before and after stressing, PFAS concentrations were the highest in outer layers of fabrics which had been treated with a water-repellent coating. The lowest PFAS concentrations were measured in the thermal layer, the undergarments.
Even though the new NIST study doesn´t assess the health risk to firefighters due to PFAs in the clothing, it does provide new data to toxicologists and other experts who will be able to assess those risks.
Studies have indicated firefighters may have higher than average levels of at least one type of PFAS.in their blood, compared to the average American.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAs, are used in many products to make them resistant to oil, water and contaminants. They are not only used in firefighters clothing but also in, furniture, food packaging and nonstick cookware, among other things.
In turnout gear the chemicals are used to help firefighters do their job without getting as wet as they would otherwise be.
Because PFAs don´t break down in the environment, they have been nicknamed "forever chemicals", and studies in recent years have shown that they may be harmful to the human body. Moreover, they may possibly stay in the body longer after a person has showered, and could be passed on to other people.
The researchers measured PFAS concentrations by first extracting PFAS from the textiles using a solvent. Based on this method, it is unclear what caused PFAS concentrations to change during stressing. Those changes might have been caused by chemical transformations, but it is also possible that stressing loosened the PFAS from the textile fibers, allowing more of it to be extracted.
Now that the researchers have measured PFAS in the textiles that have been stressed under highly controlled laboratory conditions, they are considering studying real gear that has been used for years. That may paint a more realistic picture, though a potentially more complicated one, as used gear might become contaminated with toxic compounds picked up at fire scenes.
Firefighter gear has to meet certain standards, including minimum requirements for water repellency. This research might point to new ways to meet those standards while reducing the risks of PFAS exposure. For instance, the amount and types of PFAS in the textiles varied from one manufacturer to the next, suggesting that some combinations might result in a lower risk of exposure than others. Or manufacturers might find alternative ways to meet the standards without relying on potentially toxic chemicals.
“Using PFAS in turnout gear may or may not be an acceptable risk, given all the other hazards that firefighters already face,” said NIST chemist and co-author John Kucklick. “This data will help people weigh those costs and benefits.”
Based on the NIST article "Wear and Tear May Cause Firefighter Gear to Release More ‘Forever Chemicals’
Used with permission from the National Institute of Standards and
Technology, rights reserved.
Cover illustration above:
A firefighter’s protective clothing includes three layers made of different types of textiles. A pair of studies by NIST has found that these textiles often contain potentially cancer-causing chemicals called PFAS and that they can release more of those chemicals when subject to simulated wear and tear.
Credit: B. Hayes/NIST
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