Thursday, July 18, 2024
July 18, 2024

PFAS-free gear phasing in

Salt Spring’s fire department is moving to eliminate protective gear made with materials linked to increased cancer rates — and trustees for the Salt Spring Island Fire Protection District (SSIFPD) are backing plans to make firefighters’ gear safer. 

Textiles used to manufacture firefighters’ multi-layer protective clothing currently in service have been shown to contain measurable amounts of a group of lab-made chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Health Canada and other agencies have concerns about continuous exposure to PFAS — which has been linked to cancer — and a recent follow-up study by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology has shown that those textiles release more PFAS when subject to wear and tear. 

SSIFPD trustees asked staff to prepare a plan to replace existing equipment with a PFAS-free alternative, including a cost analysis, information on availability and the regulatory approval process and a rollout plan for outfitting Salt Spring’s firefighters with that gear.  

“It’s been a long fight,” said acting Assistant Fire Chief Warren Nuyens. “We’re needlessly being exposed to [PFAS] chemicals on top of the work that we’re doing, which is already dangerous to begin with.” 

Concerns over PFAS — sometimes referred to as “forever” chemicals — were raised at the fire district’s Safety Committee a few years ago, according to Fire Chief Jamie Holmes. Typically, firefighters’ protective clothing — called turnout gear — lasts roughly 10 years, Holmes said, so to avoid a big hit to the budget all at once, the district would routinely replace eight sets each year on a staggered basis. 

“But over the last two years, we have only bought gear that needed to be replaced [immediately] because it has been degraded,” said Holmes, “because we’ve been trying not to buy the PFAS gear and we’re waiting for something PFAS-free to come out.” 

Firefighters in Vancouver this month said they had found a manufacturer that can supply turnout gear that doesn’t contain PFAS, Holmes said — and, subject to regulatory approval, it should be available relatively soon to most departments without a significant cost difference compared to existing products. 

“Gear in Europe does not have the [PFAS] chemicals, so the technology exists,” said Holmes. “Now, manufacturers can always take the opportunity to say that it’s something new to push up the price; but really it just means using ‘chemical a’ instead of ‘chemical b’ to protect you.” 

Trustee Rob Oliver pointed out MLA Adam Olsen has brought a private member’s bill to the provincial government that would phase PFAS out for firefighters across B.C. over the next five years. 

“Which I think would be lovely,” said Oliver, “but may be a bit pie-in-the-sky.” 

Nuyens told trustees that even under normal circumstances, there was about a two-month lead time to have protective gear built for firefighters. 

“If the province makes a big switch, I think there’s likely to be a large backlog on producing this gear,” said Nuyens. 

“If we can be on the earlier edge of ordering, it would be wonderful.” 

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