Firefighters will get federal help limiting their exposure to toxic “forever” chemicals on the job under a proposal awaiting action by President Joe Biden.
The legislation, if signed into law, would direct federal agencies to develop practices, training and educational programs to reduce, limit and prevent exposure from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, which have been linked to cancer and other serious ailments.
The Protecting Firefighters from Adverse Substances Act would also require the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to develop educational resources for firefighters on alternative foams and personal protection equipment that doesn’t contain the toxic compounds.
Members of the state’s congressional delegation praised the bill’s passage, and called on Biden to sign the measure.
“No one knows just how dangerous PFAS chemicals are more than firefighters who have been dealing with the devastating health effects of exposure to these ‘forever chemicals’ for years,” said Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Westford. “We have an obligation to do everything we can to get our firefighters the guidance and resources necessary to remove PFAS chemicals from their equipment so they can do their jobs as safely as possible.”
One of the bill’s primary sponsors, New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan, said the goal of the legislation is protect firefighters who are exposed to the harmful chemicals.
“Firefighters routinely put their lives on the line to keep us safe, and they face additional risk from exposure to toxic substances in firefighting foams and personal protective equipment,” she said in a statement. “I look forward to seeing the president sign this into law.”
PFAS compounds were used to make consumer products from rain coats to upholstery and have been dubbed “forever chemicals” because they accumulate in the human body and can take thousands of years to degrade.
Research has found potential links to illnesses such as kidney cancer and high cholesterol, as well as complications in pregnancies.
Dozens of states are weighing proposals to eliminate PFAS in food packaging, firefighting foam and other products, in addition to setting limits on the amount of contaminants found in water.
Massachusetts was among the first states to regulate PFAS chemicals in drinking water, and it boasts one of the toughest standards in the country.
But firefighters and other first responders say they are frequently exposed to the toxic compounds on the job and worry about the long-term health effects.
Firefighting foams that contain PFAS substances are used to extinguish fires involving highly combustible materials, such as those in gas tankers or oil refineries.
Earlier this year, Attorney General Maura Healey filed a federal lawsuit against 13 companies that make firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals, and two other firms accused of shielding assets that could have been used to clean up the contamination.
Healey alleges that the companies continued to make and sell fire fighting foam containing PFAS for decades, despite evidence that the toxic compounds are harmful to human health and polluting the environment. The outcome of that case is still pending.
Massachusetts State Fire Marshal Peter J. Ostroskey said the health risks associated with PFAS exposure are “very real” for firefighters, their families, and communities they serve.
“Occupational cancer is a deadly serious issue in the fire service,” he said. “The PFAS Act would work in concert with our ongoing prevention efforts and help local fire departments stay ready for any emergency without putting the public or their personnel at risk.”