DuPont, Tencate, and Lion Play Chemical Whack-A-Mole

With firefighters' health



Part Nine

The problem for the turnout-gear manufacturers with the Peaslee study is that his team found so much PFAS in firefighter turnout gear other than simply perfluoroctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluoroctanesulfonoic acid (PFOS). His study proved that the chemical industry and turnout gear manufacturers were playing a dangerous game of chemical whack-a-mole with firefighters’ health.

What’s known as scientific fact is that both PFOS and PFOA are cancer causing and disrupt the endocrine system. The evidence is enough to criminalize these chemicals. So they got rid of the known chemical gangsters and replaced them with newbies.

“It’s just that science hadn’t yet caught up with their toxic properties,” says Diane. “Why? Because the government hardly funds the studies needed and doesn’t require the industry to test them either before using them and exposing first responders to them on a chronic and intensive basis.

Instead of absolving the turnout gear manufacturer, the evidence that Dr. Peaslee uncovered and published in the peer-reviewed literature has uncovered a dangerous exposure pathway that is only heightening the risk of cancer, besides troubling reproductive effects on their offspring, among an occupational group already in the midst of its own epidemic of diseases such as cancer and testosterone deficiency.

“What I learned,” says Diane, “is that the chemical industry has lobbyists who have basically written all of our nation’s landmark anti-toxic legislation to make it virtually impossible to ban a chemical. You might think that the nation’s laws are anti-toxic. They are not,” she insists. “Instead, they were written by the chemical industry’s own hired lawyers and lobbyists to perpetuate the use of highly toxic substances instead of finding safer substitutes. And that’s what we’re dealing with now.”

Diane is referring to 1976 when Republican President Gerald Ford signed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) into law. TSCA grandfathered in some 62,000 largely unstudied compounds already in commercial use by 1979, exempting them from the notification process.Other key provisions protected many products from notifying consumers of what they contained under trade secret protection.

PFOA and PFOS, among other PFAS, were among the 62,000 chemicals grandfathered into use by TSCA and only later voluntarily removed by industry agreement. PFOA is also known as C8. That means it has a backbone of eight carbon atoms. The industry announced it was phasing out these longer-chained PFAS in favor of short-chained ones in the commercial pipeline including in personal protective equipment. The claim the industry makes is that the shorter-chained PFAS, called C6 and C4, are safer. They do not say safe but only safer. No one knows that this is true though because the studies haven’t been performed that would tell us about the impact of the shorter-chained PFAS on the multitude of biological endpoints that make up ways we study body and brain. Nor about their propensity to migrate into water supplies and disrupt the lives of communities throughout the US.

Due to such harmful effects, the long-chain chemicals were recently phased out and replaced by numerous similar compounds, including short-chain molecules called C6 and C4. Industry says these alternatives are safe, sustainable, and well-tested. “The major difference between PFOA, PFOS, and shorter-chained PFAS is research,” Diane says. “We just know less about them, a deficit that works in favor of the industry to stay a step ahead of the scientists. Firefighters are still at risk.” The shorter-chain compounds appear to be equally adept at polluting local community water supplies, she adds.

“It is a myth that C6 and other fluorinated replacements have been thoroughly tested and are safe. The replacements never break down and may cause similar health problems as the long-chain compounds.”

According to the California Department of Public Health, “other than PFOA and PFOS, the potential toxicity of [highly fluorinated chemicals] has not been well characterized.”

According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, “The data that do exist are cause for concern. Sixteen reports to the U.S. EPA filed by DuPont showed that animals exposed to GenX (which replaced PFOA in the manufacture of Teflon) had increased cancer incidence and changes to their liver and immune systems. These effects are similar to those from exposure to PFOA. The replacement compounds are known to adversely impact hormonal systems via a similar mechanism as the long-chain chemicals. A recent paper concluded that ‘some fluorinated alternatives have similar or higher toxic potency than their predecessors…’”

In 2015, more than 200 scientists from around the world signed the Madrid Statement, which called for limiting the production and use of all highly fluorinated chemicals. Highly fluorinated chemicals pose a potential risk to human health and the environment, and should only be used with safeguards and when their function is essential, they said.

Scientists are only beginning to understand what happens to short-chain fluorinated alternatives in the human body. A 2013 study found greater concentrations of short-chain fluorinated chemicals than long-chain chemicals in human kidney, lung, liver, and brain tissues.

According to the Danish Environmental Protection Agency, “the high presence of short-chain [fluorinated chemicals] in human tissue... is worrying.”

To be sustainable, chemicals should break down quickly after their intended use. Short-chain highly fluorinated chemicals do not break down in nature. Like their long-chain cousins, they will be with us forever. Because they do not break down, highly fluorinated chemicals make their way from the products we use into the environment, where they are difficult to remove. Activated carbon filtration, commonly used for removing long-chain compounds from water, is less effective at removing short-chains, thus placing community water supplies at risk for highly toxic contaminants that are difficult to remove.

Highly fluorinated chemicals can move from contaminated water into food crops such as lettuce and strawberries. Short-chain alternatives are found in such crops at higher levels thaan long-chains. A recent paper by prominent scientists demonstrated that highly fluorinated chemicals are “an intractable, potentially never-ending chemicals management issue.”

These are now being used in the turnout gear of firefighters. In the Peaslee study, numerous short-chain fluorinated compounds also appeared with the older eight-carbon-chained compounds PFOA and PFOS.

“Products advertised as ‘PFOA-free’ often contain replacement chemicals made with the same problematic chemical building blocks as PFOA,” says EWG. “C8 chemicals have been replaced by numerous related substances that are equally persistent and may pose similar health risks. To prevent such ‘regrettable substitutions’, the entire class of highly fluorinated chemicals should be avoided. Ask for products that do not contain any highly fluorinated chemicals (often labeled ‘fluorine-free’).”

The only answer for the firefighters is to find nontoxic alternatives for gear, which are starting to emerge, but that can only happen when the manufacturers come clean about the real risks associated with the chronic use of their gear. This is an area where firefighters have a right to know about these hidden chemicals and their true risks, not given greenwashed reviews by their own union or paid industry scientists.

But while everybody else is looking to the future, Diane is looking at the past and unwilling to forget the truth. “A lot of firefighters were involuntarily exposed to PFOA and PFOS and still were being exposed because they were using older gear. All these men and women need a program to have their gear replaced or they will be at risk like my own husband was. The Peaslee study proved how dangerous the turnout gear was, and I needed an attorney, someone who could bring justice to the 1.3 million men and women who protect us daily.”

Read Part Ten: Finding Justice

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