Toxic chemicals showing up in the product firefighters use to do their job

Published: April 2, 2019 5:06 PM EDT
Updated: April 3, 2019 3:43 PM EDT

When you see scenes of flames shooting into the sky, threatening homes and lives, it really underscores the extreme dangers firefighters face.

But, there are also hidden dangers that could be putting them at risk — toxic chemicals showing up in a product firefighters use to do their jobs.

State officials stopped by the Bonita Springs fire training facility earlier Tuesday morning, making plans to test for toxic chemicals found in some firefighting foams used at training facilities.

The contaminants can seep into the ground and water causing health concerns.

MAP: Fire Training Facilities with Reported Usage of Aqueous Film Forming Foam

When North Collier firefighters train, they use soapy water to spray from hoses rather than the chemical foam used to put out active fires.

Chief Jamie Cunningham with the North Collier Fire District said their policy saves money, “Over the many past years we have only used water and soap detergent, or some kind of dish soap for example, to mimic that foam for training purposes which is obviously much less expensive.”

And it may save lives as well.

Many firefighting foams include per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), synthetic chemicals that have been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, and other health issues.

Cunningham says, fortunately, it’s good they didn’t expose the firefighters to that agent during the training exercises.

In Bonita Springs, the fire district doesn’t train with the foam any more, but it did in the past.

So did many others across the state and country.

Now, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is testing more than two dozen training facilities for signs of contamination.

Bonita Springs Assistant Fire Chief Greg Dewitt is hopeful his training center will be in the clear. Either way, he’s ready to act.

“If we do have to clean it up we’ll work closely with the DEP to put a plan of attack whether it’s to pull out so many cubic feet of soil, get rid of the pond pump it down and re-pump it back in,” Dewitt  said. “Whatever we need to do we’ll do it just because of the safety of the public and the firefighters.”

The DEP already found PFAS contamination at the Florida State Fire College in Ocala.

Several firefighters and employees who worked at the fire college have filed a lawsuit against makers of the foam. Most are sick with serious diseases, and they blame PFAS exposure. In the lawsuit, they claim blame PFAS exposure for causing their sickness.

LINK: EPA Action Plan on PFAS

The plaintiffs’ attorney, James Ferraro Jr., spent time with some of those firefighters,
“People who were otherwise healthy, everyone had thyroid problems. And I was like, this is just too weird of a coincidence you know.”

For its part, the EPA plans to begin regulating the chemicals by the end of 2019. You can watch the EPA’s press conference on PFAS, from February 14.

Many states aren’t waiting for the EPA to take action. A few states passed laws last year to ban or at least regulate these toxic chemical, and right now lawmakers in more than a dozen states, including Florida, are considering legislation to do the same.

MAP: States That Have Laws in Place or Bills in Consideration to Regulate or Ban PFAS

“Firefighters, yes, they’re exposed to a lot of different things but I can tell you one thing, they’re always working with this foam,” Ferraro said. “It’s a real tragedy if these manufacturers knew that this was toxic and they knew full well how this would be used and how often it would be used.”

We reached out to manufacturers named in the lawsuit and they either declined to comment because of pending litigation or said they had acted responsibly and plan to vigorously defend their companies. (See full company responses below)

Meanwhile, some manufacturers have come out with replacement chemicals, but they are now showing up in the environment, too. The EPA is currently assessing how toxic those might be to humans.

As for Assistant Chief Dewitt, he’s searching for a new foam alternative that does not harm the environment or humans, “It’s not something that we would knowingly put our firefighters in that danger. So now that we know, we’re going to fix it. … our number one priority is the safety of our firefighters and the public.”

The DEP is expected to return to the Bonita Springs fire training facility later this month for testing.

But keep in mind, it’s not just PFAS chemicals that firefighters are exposed to. Smoke contains many other hazardous chemicals like carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide.

Battling for cancer coverage

Lehigh Acres Fire Chief Robert Dilallo has seen it all in his 28 years in the fire service.

“Each and every time you go to a firefighter funeral that’s died from cancer, it’s heartbreaking,” Dilallo said.

His heart also breaks for the families. He knows what they are going through. At age 30, Dilallo was diagnosed with bladder cancer – just a month after his son was born 20 years ago.

“The things that go through your head,” Dilallo said. “The things you start thinking about at that time is – am I gonna die? Am I gonna make it through this? What’s my wife gonna do? What’s my family gonna do? Who is gonna provide for them?

“And I think that’s why this bill is so important,” Dilallo said.

He’s one of the lucky ones. After surgery, he was back on the job within weeks. He has been cancer free ever since.

Letter sent to the speaker regarding the rows of boots representing firefighters who died from cancer. (Credit: WINK News)
Letter sent to the speaker regarding the rows of boots representing firefighters who died from cancer. (Credit: WINK News)

But, many others do not make it. Rows of boots represent firefighters who died from cancer or are currently battling the disease. They were on display at the Capitol in Tallahassee earlier this month. It was the same time state lawmakers were considering a bill to give firefighters more cancer coverage, disability and death benefits.

Many states already have a law in place – Florida does not.

“For the families to is the big deal because a lot of times when a firefighter dies in the state of Florida their families are left with almost no coverage because it isn’t considered a line-of-duty death,” said Heather Mazurkiewicz, assistant state director in the Florida chapter of Firefighter Cancer Support Network.

Statistics show firefighters not only have a higher risk of getting cancer than others, but also a higher risk of dying from it.

“It’s not your mom’s or your grandmother’s fires anymore with these natural burning furniture,” Mazurkiewicz said. “Everything is plastic based so when we go into these exposures that’s changed.”

Within the past year, fire departments across Florida also started decontamination efforts on the scene to help remove the hazardous chemicals they are exposed to regularly.

“And all they’re going to do is wash each other down, from the top down, not from the helmet but from the shoulders down to get that one layer of carcinogens that’s on the outside of the gear off,” Mazurkiewicz said. “Our goal is to not place anything back into the fire truck that has contaminants.”

In North Naples, the gear, as well as the ice machines and water fountains, are kept separate in air-conditioned rooms away from the truck’s diesel exhaust and other carcinogens.

Dillalo said his firefighters must also shower within an hour of returning from a fire. He is hopeful these changes, along with more cancer coverage, will help keep firefighters alive.

Dillalo is counting on it. He has two children who are now grown. His son recently became a firefighter, following in his dad’s footsteps and sharing his love of service.

“It’s a humbling career,” Dillalo said. “It’s just…I don’t feels good to help people. I love the job.”


“3M cares deeply about the safety and health of Florida’s communities. 3M acted responsibly in connection with the manufacture and sale of AFFF and will vigorously defend its environmental stewardship.” – Fanna Haile-Selassie, External Communications Manager

“Tyco and Chemguard acted appropriately and responsibly at all times in connection with their production of aqueous film-forming foams (AFFFs). AFFFs have been used for decades by the US military and fire-fighting professionals to extinguish life-threatening fires, and they continue to be used safely and reliably for that purpose today. We intend to vigorously defend this lawsuit.” – Fraser Engerman, Director of Global Media Relations

“In response to your query, it is not appropriate for us to comment regarding ongoing litigation.” – Greg Brostowicz, Director of Communications, Fire & Security Products

Declined to comment.

Did not respond to emails or calls.