Nation’s largest fire union sues entity that sets standards for safety over PFAS requirement

The nation’s largest fire union has filed a lawsuit alleging that the entity that sets standards for safe fire gear conspired to require the use of carcinogenic “forever chemicals” in turnout gear. 

The concern behind the lawsuit – that the gear firefighters wear to fight fires is actually making them sick – was initially probed by Diane Cotter, the wife of former Worcester Fire Lt. Paul Cotter, one of many city firefighters who’ve separately filed lawsuits alleging their gear caused their cancers. 

Former Worcester Firefighter Lt. Paul Cotter with his wife, Diane, with dozens of notebooks she filled while researching chemicals used on turnout gear. [Christine Peterson/Telegram & Gazette]

“This is what leadership looks like,” Diane Cotter said Thursday of the International Association of Firefighters, whose current General President Edward Kelly has addressed mounting concerns over so-called “forever chemicals” she said his predecessor had ignored. 

“The very gear designed to protect firefighters, to keep us safe, is killing us,” Kelly said in a news release announcing the lawsuit Thursday. 

Suit revolves around standard set by National Fire Protection Agency 

The union lawsuit revolves around a technical standard for fire protection gear set by the National Fire Protection Agency, an international nonprofit that sets standards adopted by gear manufacturers. 

The 26-page lawsuit, filed in Norfolk Superior Court against the National Fire Protection Agency, alleges that the organization adopted and maintained a technical standard for gear that “needlessly” required the use of PFAS – per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances – in firefighter turnout gear. 

The lawsuit alleges that the National Fire Protection Agency conspired with “others” to ensure that an inner moisture barrier in the gear would have to contain PFAS in order to pass a specific “UV light test” designated by a particular technical requirement. 

The suit alleges that the test was designed in a way to mandate the use of PFAS, and that the National Fire Protection Agency, despite requests to remove the standard, has refused.

It alleges that the National Fire Protection Agency and “others” conspired so that the light test “would remain part of the 2018 edition of (the technical standard) so that (gear manufacturers) would continue to be able to profit from the manufacture, use, and distribution of moisture barriers in bunker gear comprised of PTFE, a fluoropolymer and type of PFAS known to degrade into toxic, carcinogenic compounds.”

The International Association of Firefighters noted that PFAS have been linked to cancer, and that cancer is the leading cause of firefighter death. 

“Nearly 75 percent of those honored at the 2022 Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial died of occupational cancer,” the International Association of Firefighters wrote in its news release. 

In an email Thursday afternoon, a spokesperson for the National Fire Protection Agency said it could not comment on the lawsuit because it had not yet been served with the complaint.

“NFPA shares the concern of the entire fire service community around the health and safety of first responders,” the agency wrote.

It added that the specific standard at issue is before a technical committee through the agency’s “open-consensus standards development process.”

Suit seeks end to standard, impose damages 

The International Association of Firefighters lawsuit – filed by three large law firms – demands an end to use of the standard, as well as compensation for harms it alleges the standard has caused. 

The suit said the union, because of the National Fire Protection Agency’s actions, including its resistance to changing the standard, has had to devote resources to partner with the American Cancer Society, hire its first-ever chief medical officer and “create and staff its own Science & Research Department to expand cancer research.”

“Even when presented with independent science on the health and safety risks, the NFPA has refused to help save our lives,” Kelly said in the news release. 

The lawsuit alleges the National Fire Protection Agency standards were implemented “on the basis of an unscientific, industry-funded thesis” done by a master’s student at a university in 2000. 

It alleges that recent research on PFAS points to what those who defend its use have long denied: That the harmful chemicals in the gear pose a serious risk to the health of firefighters. 

The lawsuit references research that Graham Peaslee, an experimental nuclear physicist at the University of Notre Dame, conducted at the request of Cotter. 

Cotter’s yearslong advocacy on the subject was recently spotlighted in a documentary produced in part by Hollywood Actor Mark Ruffalo that will be premiered at The Hanover Theatre June 11. 

Cotter has long alleged that the National Fire Protection Agency – which counts chemical companies and gear manufacturers as voting members on committees – has been unduly swayed by corporate interests. 

She has called upon lawmakers to open Congressional probes into the topic of PFAS in firefighting gear including into resistance she said multiple institutions – including the National Fire Protection Agency, chemical companies and unions – offered to scrutinize the issue. 

Cotter’s husband, Paul Cotter, is one of more than a dozen city firefighters separately suing chemical companies over allegations that PFAS was the “proximate cause” of their cancers

The issue of PFAS contamination has become one of national concern, with government agencies increasingly advising against eating fish from local waters and the Environmental Protection Agency this week proposing the first federal limits for drinking water. 

The Environmental Protection Agency, in announcing the move, said it would save thousands of lives and prevent serious illnesses including cancer.