San Francisco to enact landmark ban on PFAS chemicals in firefighter gear

March 28, 2024

San Francisco’s ban on PFAS on firefighter gear deadline is June 30, 2026

San Francisco is set to introduce a pioneering ordinance, marking a significant move in the fight against occupational cancer among firefighters.

The proposed law, aimed at eliminating per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from firefighter clothing, is slated to be the most stringent of its kind in the United States.

With a deadline for compliance by June 30, 2026, the city aims to replace firefighter gear that contains these harmful chemicals.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin highlighted the city’s leadership in this area, stating: “San Francisco would be the first to pass such a law.”

Firefighters face a higher risk of developing and dying from cancer compared to the general population, a fact not solely attributable to smoke inhalation during fire combat.

The synthetic “forever chemicals” found in their protective gear, linked to cancers, organ damage, and other illnesses, persist in the gear’s inner layers, posing a significant health risk.

Peskin emphasized the city’s commitment to safety: “We can’t control cancerous chemicals firefighters breathe when they’re responding to a fire, but we can control the protective equipment that we’re giving them.”

The cost and support for the transition

The ordinance’s introduction by Peskin, alongside fellow supervisors Ahsha Safaí and Connie Chan, comes with an estimated $10 million price tag for the city to replace the contaminated uniforms, known as turnouts.

However, the initiative has secured a $2.3 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist in the transition.

This move builds on a previous agreement between the city and the firefighters’ union to explore PFAS-free uniform options.

The alarming health statistics

San Francisco’s firefighting community has seen a distressing number of cancer cases, with more than 300 current and former firefighters succumbing to cancer-related causes in the past decade.

Additionally, 62 active and 141 retired firefighters have been diagnosed with cancer in the last six years.

Alarmingly, female firefighters in San Francisco have been diagnosed with breast cancer at a rate approximately six times higher than the national average.

Adam Wood, vice president of the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation, stressed the urgency of addressing this issue, reflecting on the alarming statistics: “It’s extremely urgent.”

The broader implications of PFAS exposure

The health risks associated with firefighting extend beyond exposure to smoke and flames.

A San Francisco Chronicle investigation underscored the government’s historical inadequacies in protecting firefighters, particularly wildland firefighters, from smoke exposure.

Additionally, the World Health Organization classified firefighting as “carcinogenic to humans” in 2022.

PFAS chemicals, prevalent in a wide array of products for their heat and moisture resistance, have been increasingly scrutinized for their environmental persistence and potential health impacts.

Despite efforts to mitigate exposure to harmful substances, Adam Wood notes that current measures have fallen short: “It’s still not moving the needle on cancer rates.

There’s a piece of this puzzle that we haven’t addressed yet, and we feel strongly that these cancer-causing chemicals on turnouts is one of the missing pieces.”

FSJA Comment

The ordinance proposed by San Francisco to ban PFAS chemicals in firefighter gear represents a critical step forward in occupational health safety.

As firefighters are exposed to a myriad of harmful substances in the line of duty, eliminating one known source of carcinogenic exposure can substantially impact their overall health outcomes.

This move by San Francisco underscores the necessity of proactive measures in safeguarding our first responders, who risk their lives to protect the community.

It highlights the importance of ongoing research and policy-making that prioritizes the health and safety of those in perilous professions.

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