Local fire departments such as Troy’s are weighing in on new legislation intended to help keep firefighters safe.

Local fire departments such as Troy’s are weighing in on new legislation intended to help keep firefighters safe.

Photo by Brendan Losinski

Michigan legislators pass act to protect firefighters from chemicals

By: Brendan Losinski | Metro | Published January 11, 2023


MICHIGAN — Firefighters are weighing in on new legislation led by two Michigan lawmakers, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, to help protect fire departments from perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, otherwise known as PFAS or “forever chemicals.”

The Protecting Firefighters from Adverse Substances Act will direct federal agencies to develop best practices, training and educational programs to reduce, limit and prevent exposure to PFAS chemicals.

“Forever chemicals are an urgent public health threat, especially to our firefighters who are frequently exposed to harmful PFAS in firefighting foams and personal protective equipment as they work to keep us safe,” Dingell said in a press release.

“We need to protect firefighters and first responders from harmful PFAS substances in the line of duty,” Peters added. “This new law will help the federal government ensure that our heroes are safe from these forever chemicals that continue to pose a threat to the health and safety of emergency responders in Michigan and across the country.”

The act is designed to develop educational resources to help protect firefighters, emergency response personnel, and the communities they serve from PFAS exposure. This will include information for federal, state and local firefighters on training and best practices to prevent and reduce exposure to PFAS from firefighting foams and protective gear, as well as resources that identify alternatives for firefighting tools and equipment that do not contain PFAS.

Peter Hullinger, Troy Fire Department chief, said concerns about exposure to chemicals while on the job is a serious issue for firefighters.

“The main concern with PFAS is that it is a ‘forever chemical’ which does not break down or degrade over time,” explained Hullinger. “Firefighters are exposed to many hazards and dangerous chemicals. We use the best (personal protective equipment) and practices to minimize risk and exposures, but when a chemical like this is present in our PPE and does not break down, it makes it very difficult to avoid and mitigate.”

Emergency response teams are frequently exposed to harmful PFAS chemicals present in firefighting foams and personal protective equipment as they work to keep communities safe. PFAS substances have been linked to a number of health problems, including certain cancers. By 2023, post PFAS chemicals have been removed from the foam used in fighting fires.

“Our department, like most in Michigan, no longer has any foam that contains PFAS,” said Hullinger. “The state of Michigan did a collection of PFAS foam from fire departments, and all of ours was turned over to them. The replacement foam that was purchased does not contain any of these chemicals and has proven to be just as effective in suppressing fires. All the foam that was used on the I-75 and Big Beaver tanker fire several years ago was PFAS-free foam, thus minimizing the risk to firefighters and the public.”

However, Hullinger said that a large amount of personal protective equipment commonly used by fire departments still can contain such chemicals.

“Our safety committee, made up of firefighters from each station, will be researching PPE this year to replace any of our current PPE that contains PFAS,” he said. “Unfortunately, the PPE manufacturers are still researching and just beginning to produce products that will protect our firefighters without containing these toxic chemicals.”

Hullinger said that he was pleased to see an educational and informational component in the legislation, since that will go a long way in helping ensure firefighters aren’t exposed to such dangerous chemicals.

“This legislation will create education on these toxins — that is key,” he said. “Once this education is assembled and made available, we will use it to better educate our current and new firefighters. Like anything, if we are not educated or have knowledge on something, it makes it difficult to avoid or handle. This knowledge and information will be key in us better protecting our members.”

He went on to say that it is important to take these steps to protect firefighters during what are already extremely dangerous situations.

“We would like to see … better education and products that do not contain these or any other harmful chemicals,” Hullinger remarked. “When something is on fire, the chemical makeup changes, and it becomes very harmful and toxic. We do not need to be worried about our PPE and other equipment being harmful and toxic to us as well.”