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Special Report- How fire crews are trying to remove PFAS from fire gear

SALINAS, Calif. (KION) - What is supposed to protect our firefighters is ultimately causing them harm.
Over the last few years, the Santa Cruz Fire Department alone has lost 3 firefighters due to cancer.

One of them was Brian Tracy, who dedicated 17 years to the Santa Cruz Fire Department.

"He was courageous. He was brave. This was his heart and soul was the fire department," said Stephanie Tracy, his widow.

She says is ironic that the job that he loved so much, protecting others and saving lives, is possibly what killed him at age 45.

"It was hard to accept that it was happening because he seemed fine for so long until he wasn't fine anymore. Started just deteriorating physically really fast. And, you know, once the decline started, it was it was fast. So it was really hard for us," said Tracy.

Photo of former Santa Cruz Fire Captain Brian Tracy with his wife Stephanie and his daughter. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Tracy.

The cause of Brian's death was brain cancer which Stephanie believes was caused by his exposure to PFAS, a chemical proven to cause the deadly disease. Pfas aren't only present in the environment where they work, but it's in the protective gear they wear.

And Brian isn't alone. Two other firefighters in Santa Cruz lost their fight to cancer in recent years.

"I don't think people quite understand the risks that these guys take every day responding to fires. You know, a lot of people think that just the fire is the threat, but there's a lot of other threats to firefighters like carcinogens and exposure risks," said Tracy.

The National Association of Firefighters says it is the PFAS found in the lining of protective gear like this, gear that covers their entire body, that may be killing them.

"There are no alternatives that are available in the market, but that's in the context of, again, this overly prescriptive, test standard that doesn't allow for safe alternatives to be used," said Niel McMillan, International Association of Firefighters, Director of Science and Research within Health, Safety and Medicine Division

Experts argue that the risk is unnecessary.

There are Pfas-free moisture barriers that have been in the market in Europe for many years, being incorporated into firefighter turnout gear there because they have a different type of standard, a different type of test.

Why not here? Unlike Europe, in the United States, The National Fire Protection Association requires gear to pass the 40-hour ultraviolet light detection test. And the only substance that can pass the test is PFAS.

"We can't have healthy communities without healthy firefighters, and we can't have healthy firefighters until we get rid of this insidious class of chemicals from our turn-up care of knowing," said McMillan. "Firefighters, more than anybody, realize the cost of occupational exposures in the form of, you know, our brothers and sisters that we lose. And those caskets get heavy,"

Along with possible dangers from gear, smoke inhalation and exposure to other chemicals prompted the World Health Organization to classify firefighting as an increased cancer risk, firefighters being exposed to 5 of these 10 key characteristics of carcinogens.

IAFF says just last year, 72% of IAFF member line-of-duty deaths were due to occupational cancer.

Lucas Spellman, Deputy Chief for the Safety Program for CAL FIRE says a lot has changed in his three decades in the firefighting industry including how firefighters protect themselves on and off duty.

"In the old days, we always had turnouts that were dirty, and that showed that you are a hard-working firefighter," said Spellman. "And now the mindset is, the cleaner you look, the harder you are,"

Spellman says that it will cost around $5,000 to replace each set of turnouts.

Something Stephanie Tracy says is nothing compared to a human life.

"Cancer affects these guys, like 200% higher chance of getting cancer than the average person," said Tracy. "And there are things we can do if we just don't fund the mission. You know, we just need the money for the turnouts and we need the money for the extractors."

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Dania Romero

Dania Romero is an reporter at KION News Channel 46.


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