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Conn. firefighter, cancer patient calls attention to PFAS

Westport Firfefighter Paul Spennato tells other firefighter to be vigilant and wear gear only when necessary


Westport Fire Department apparatus.

Westport Fire Department/Facebook

By Ed Stannard
Hartford Courant

HARTFORD, Conn. — Firefighters face danger whenever they answer a call to a blazing building.

They are also the public servants who go on medical calls as well, saving people’s lives by getting them to the hospital in their role as emergency medical technicians.

But firefighters are concerned about the more invisible dangers their jobs put them in every time they don their firefighting gear, which are coated with the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS.

“The turnout gear that firefighters have been wearing for a long time, the gear they wear to go into fires … has layers in it that contain a fair amount of PFAS,” said Kevin McKie of the Environmental Litigation Group in Birmingham, Alabama. “Firefighters are being exposed at levels much higher than the general public.”

He said the dust in firehouses that comes off the firefighting gear also can be breathed in by the firefighters.

PFAS, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, found in drinking water, food packaging, raingear and numerous other items, do not break down easily. They have been used in firefighting foams since the 1970s, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, and efforts are underway to mitigate that problem.

They have been linked to interference with the immune system and cancers.

State Attorney General William Tong recently sued 28 manufacturers that manufacture or use PFAS, including those that include the chemicals in firefighting foam.

Nationally, attorneys have teamed up to sue the manufacturers of PFAS — 3M, Dupont and others — on behalf of firefighters who are exposed to PFAS in the gear they wear on the job.

About 500 cases are pending in U.S. District Court in Charleston, S.C., where they have been consolidated as multidistrict legislation.

“Obviously firefighting is a dangerous job and they’re exposed to a lot more than just PFAS in, say, putting out a fire … but that’s something that they knew going into the job of what that would be,” McKie said.

“They didn’t realize that the gear … and the products they were given to help them do their job as efficiently as possible and to save as many people as possible was hurting them at the same time,” he said. “So we’re there to represent them in their suits so they get some money back from the various companies involved with producing that product and putting it in their hands.”

Paul Spennato, 39, of Milford is a 13-year veteran of the Westport Fire Department. He is in remission from a myxoid liposarcoma tumor behind his knee.

“I don’t know if it was directly from PFAS,” he said. “I can say that I have been exposed, but I can’t say for certain that my cancer was caused from PFAS.”

He knows other firefighters who have gotten cancer as well. And he is concerned that firefighters are exposed to PFAS in multiple ways.

“The PFAS is in our gear that we wear, not just firefighting foam,” he said. “You go to a structure fire and things that are burning in your home may contain PFAS. Our gear, to meet the requirements, have PFAS, just going out the door, we’re not even fighting the fire yet.”

Spennato said he was much less careful about his gear when he was young.

“I was a volunteer before I was paid, and I would wear that gear all the time,” he said. “It was pride. It was a cool thing. You went to go fight a fire, it was a big deal, especially 19 years old. I didn’t know that it was affecting my health.”

Then, when he joined the Westport department, “as a younger firefighter we would bring our gear into the bunk room, then we would put our hitches on and go out to the truck that way, just to be ready,” Spennato said.

Now, though, “I’ve changed the way I do business,” he said. He keeps his gear in his truck bay or in a bag when he’s not on the job.

“My message to the other firefighters is, be vigilant. Wear your gear only when necessary. Educate yourself on PFAS. Just do the best you can to wear all your protective equipment.”

Connecticut has, since October, made it easier to help firefighters recover lost wages when they have to miss work for cancer treatment. The state first created a Firefighters Cancer Relief Program in 2017 to help offset wages lost because of cancer treatments.

Peter Brown, president of the Uniformed Professional Firefighters Association, said in November that since the law took effect Oct. 1, placing $5 million of new money as part of the bill into the firefighter’s cancer relief fund, about 10 firefighters had applied for aid. He said at the time that he believed more are pending based on their date of diagnosis.

Spennato said he simply wants to keep his fellow firefighters safe and as far from the risk of cancer as possible.

“I’ve seen too many people sick, myself included,” he said. “And it’s devastating. Cancer just ruins everything. It just ruins lives. If I can just help one person, I just feel that I’m doing something.”

He’s created a PowerPoint to educate his peers “on my own time and on my own dime.” But he would like help.

“I would like for the politicians to stand behind us and support us with getting this PFAS out of our gear,” Spennato said. “I want more educational programs to bring awareness to our firefighters. Our state just passed the firefighter cancer bill, and it’s a tremendous benefit. But if we provide our firefighters with the education, maybe they’re not going to have to utilize that as much.”

The law, which took effect Oct. 1 , added $5 million to the Firefighter’s Cancer Relief Program.

“I want to get the message out because we need it now,” Spennato said. “So I just started driving all over the state of Connecticut . … I’m spending my time with these members in the department so I can pass on this information. That’s important.”

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