Firefighters grapple with risks from foam laced with toxic “forever chemicals”

Inside Fire Station 22 in Bellbrook, Ohio, Lt. Jay Leach helped remove buckets of firefighting foam known as aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) — a tool undeniably effective at suppressing and smothering fires, but one also laced with PFAS, or so-called “forever chemicals,” which are now linked to various cancers.

“Most firefighters who got into this job know the inherent risks, but we never knew the gear and equipment we’re using is killing us,” Leach said.

Cancer was the cause of 72% of active-duty firefighter deaths last year, according to the International Association of Firefighters. A separate study showed that smoke inhalation causes just 4% of active-duty firefighter deaths.

For Leach, cancer’s heartache has no limits.

His wife, Tracy, was a firefighter for 25 years. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, despite no family history of cancer. 

“It pretty much ravaged her body,” Leach said. “And then, in December 2022, she was diagnosed terminally and two weeks later, on Christmas Eve, she died.”

Leach now carries a picture of Tracy with him in his firefighting helmet whenever he goes out on a call. While he cannot prove conclusively that PFAS from the firefighting foam were the cause of his wife’s cancer, Leach said he “wholeheartedly” believes they were the source. 

In a statement, the American Chemistry Council, an industry group for chemical companies, said it supports limitations on using AFFF, but added, “All PFAS are not the same. It is not scientifically accurate or appropriate to group them together when considering safety risks.”

For Leach, dropping off buckets of AFFF for destruction was cathartic.

A safer foam now exists, but tens of thousands of gallons of AFFF still sit in fire stations across America. Thirty-four states have introduced policies to ban or limit the use of AFFF, and Ohio is the first state committed to destroying all of it.

But the risk from PFAS doesn’t just come from AFFF. The chemicals have been inside other pieces of firefighting gear for decades. PFAS help repel water and contaminants, but putting the gear on means wrapping yourself in suspected carcinogens.

“We sweat, our pores open up and forever chemicals can go into our body,” Leach said. 

He told CBS News that, 19 years into the job, he’s far more scared of cancer than fires.

“I love the job, but at the end of the day I sit and think, ‘Is it worth it?'”

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