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Heavily used turnout gear may expose firefighters to cancer-causing chemicals

Gaithersburg, MD — Wear and tear in firefighters’ protective clothing may lead to an increased release of chemicals linked to cancer, according to a new study from the National Institute of Standards and Technology. 

Cancer is a leading cause of death among firefighters. 

NIST researchers tested 21 textiles used in “turnout gear,” including jackets and pants, for 53 types of polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Tests included abrasion, heat, laundering and weathering, which was simulated using ultraviolet radiation and high humidity. 

Abrasion of the material released more PFAS – known as forever chemicals because they break down slowly over time – across all textiles. Weathering and heat was linked to an increase in PFAS for outer shell materials. Laundering garments had little effect.

PFAS concentrations were at their highest level in outer shell fabrics with water-repellent coatings and at their lowest levels in the thermal layer.

“The firefighter community has raised concerns about PFAS in turnout gear, but before these studies, there was very little data that address those concerns,” study co-author Rick Davis, a NIST chemist, said in a press release. “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.”

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