San Francisco set to ban PFAS in firefighter gear

May 15, 2024

San Francisco to ban ‘forever chemicals’ in firefighter gear

San Francisco is expected to become the first city in the United States to ban firefighter clothing made with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), as reported by NBC News.

The local lawmakers are anticipated to pass an ordinance prohibiting the use of protective equipment containing PFAS, which are long-lasting compounds known for their persistence in the environment and potential health risks.

PFAS have been associated with various health issues, including decreased fertility, low birth weight, developmental delays in children, increased cancer risk, and higher cholesterol levels, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Although these compounds have been phased out of many U.S. manufacturing processes, they are still present in firefighting foams and most firefighter uniforms due to their ability to repel flammable liquids and resist extreme heat.

Health concerns linked to PFAS

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently voted unanimously in support of the PFAS ban and is expected to finalize the vote soon.

If approved, the law would require the city’s fire department to switch to PFAS-free protective clothing by June 30, 2026, affecting over 1,400 firefighters.

Lt. Magaly Saade, a firefighter and training instructor who has battled cancer twice, believes that her protective gear, made with PFAS, may have contributed to her illness.

She said: “I definitely don’t want someone else to have to go through what I did.” Saade added that using potentially harmful chemicals in equipment for those risking their lives seems “really malicious.”

Testing of PFAS-free gear

Since February, eleven San Francisco firefighters have been testing new PFAS-free turnouts as part of a nationwide trial by the International Association of Fire Fighters.

This trial includes gear from Fire-Dex, Lion, and Honeywell, with preliminary findings expected this summer.

Adam Wood, vice president of the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation, reported positive initial results: “In terms of working in a fire, allowing us to do our job, protecting us from heat — I have nothing but good things to report.”

The transition to PFAS-free gear is estimated to cost $3,400 per turnout, with the total cost for the city projected at $10.1 million.

However, Wood emphasized the importance of the investment: “It’s a lower cost than cancer and it’s a lower cost than firefighter lives.”

Broader implications and future research

The ban in San Francisco could influence manufacturers to develop PFAS-free options for firefighter gear.

Proponents argue that the health risks of PFAS have been recognized for years.

California already enacted a near-total ban on PFAS-containing firefighting foams in 2022, with similar actions taken by other states such as Colorado and Washington.

However, concerns remain about the safety of PFAS-free alternatives.

Dr. Bryan Ormond, a chemist at North Carolina State University, warned: “We don’t want to just trade one hazard for another.”

His research indicates that removing PFAS could make firefighter uniforms less breathable and more prone to burning.

More research and testing are needed to ensure the new materials provide adequate protection.

Adam Wood echoed the need for further study: “We just need to make sure they still function well as turnouts, protecting us from heat and allowing us to do our job in a burning building.”

The goal is to find a solution that does not exchange one set of risks for another.

FSJA comment

The impending ban on PFAS in firefighter gear in San Francisco represents a significant step towards addressing the long-term health risks associated with these chemicals.

PFAS have been widely used due to their ability to resist heat and repel liquids, making them effective in firefighting gear.

However, their persistence in the environment and potential health impacts have raised serious concerns.

The decision by San Francisco’s lawmakers to transition to PFAS-free alternatives highlights the growing awareness and need for safer protective equipment.

As this initiative progresses, it will be crucial to monitor the performance of PFAS-free gear and ensure that it meets the rigorous demands of firefighting.

Continued research and development are essential to achieving a balance between safety and functionality.

The outcomes of this transition could set a precedent for other cities and states, potentially leading to broader changes in the manufacturing standards for firefighter equipment.

Read Next

Subscribe Now