NIST releases new findings on PFAS exposure through firefighter gear

February 22, 2024

National Institute of Standards and Technology studies PFAS in firefighter turnout gear

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has published the second installment of a comprehensive four-part study examining the exposure risks of firefighters to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) emanating from their protective gear.

This latest release, dated February 1, 2024, follows the initial report from May 2023, which analyzed PFAS levels in unused, off-the-shelf firefighter turnout gear, including jackets, pants, gloves, helmets, and self-contained breathing apparatus.

The initial study, titled “Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances in New Firefighter Turnout Gear Textiles” (NIST Technical Note 2248), revealed variable PFAS concentrations across different manufacturers and gear layers.

Notably, the outermost layers of turnout coats and pants consistently showed the highest levels of PFAS.

Examining the effects of wear and tear on PFAS levels in gear

The follow-up research, “Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances in Firefighter Turnout Gear Textiles Exposed to Abrasion, Elevated Temperature, Laundering, or Weathering” (NIST Technical Note 2260), assessed the impact of conditions simulating wear and tear on PFAS concentrations.

This study found that abrasion, weathering, and heat could increase PFAS levels, whereas laundering had a minimal effect, occasionally even reducing PFAS due to removal in wastewater.

Understanding PFAS and their impact on firefighters

PFAS, utilized in turnout gear for their thermal stability and resistance to oil and water, have been associated with cancer and other negative health outcomes.

Firefighters, in particular, face higher risks due to elevated PFAS levels in their blood, attributed to their frequent exposure to these chemicals.

The NIST’s ongoing research aims to balance the protective benefits of PFAS in firefighting gear against the potential health risks, by quantifying PFAS levels under various conditions.

This effort seeks to inform safer practices and gear design for firefighters, mitigating their exposure to these harmful substances.

FSJA Comment

The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s continued investigation into PFAS exposure through firefighter turnout gear is a critical step towards ensuring the health and safety of firefighters.

By examining the conditions that affect PFAS levels, NIST is providing invaluable data that can lead to the development of safer gear and informed guidelines for its use and maintenance.

This research underscores the need for ongoing evaluation of the materials and chemicals used in protective equipment, balancing their performance benefits against potential health risks.

As the study progresses, it will be imperative for manufacturers, safety regulators, and firefighting departments to collaborate on integrating these findings into practice, potentially revolutionizing the safety standards of firefighting gear.

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