Why Now?  8 of 13 Short Stories.  4 minute read.

Firefighters know better than most that petrochemical fire retardants(FRs) cause human tragedy. The presence of FRs and associated toxic chemicals in our beds and throughout our homes harms more than you and your family. The following excerpts from Lynne Peeples’ excellent HuffPost article, Firefighters Sound Alarm On Toxic Chemicals, reports the tragedy and the truth:

Firefighter boots line the stairs inside San Francisco City Hall during a remembrance ceremony held for San Francisco firefighters who have died of cancer on March 26, 2014 in San Francisco, California.

More than 200 empty pairs of firefighter boots lined the steps of the Rotunda in San Francisco’s City Hall on Wednesday. Each pair represented a local firefighter who lost his or her life “with their boots off” due to cancer in the last 14 years, said Tony Stefani, president of the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation.

They serve, just like pregnant women and children, as canaries in the coal mine for the health effects we’re seeing from chemicals we’re exposed to every day.

The display is one of at least 15 “Give Toxics the Boot” events around the country this week. From Spokane, Wash., to Augusta, Maine, firefighters are calling for stricter regulations on flame retardants and other toxic chemicals they say are causing cancer and other diseases among their ranks.

“We take every precaution we can to minimize our exposure and risk, yet we’re still being exposed to these chemicals on a daily basis,” said Emmett McNamee, a 20-year veteran Spokane firefighter. “And these are bioaccumulative. They build up in our systems.”

Public health advocates are standing alongside firefighters in the heated battle.

“Our first responders and firefighters are disproportionately exposed and affected by the chemicals that are in our homes,” said Lindsay Dahl, deputy director for the non-profit Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, one of the organizations participating in the campaign. “They serve, just like pregnant women and children, as canaries in the coal mine for the health effects we’re seeing from chemicals we’re exposed to every day.”

200 pairs of empty boots belonging to San Francisco firefighters who have died of cancer are remembered at a “Give Toxics The Boot“ event in San Francisco (Photo: Justin Sullivan)

To fight a fire means confronting a toxic soup of burning chemicals and their byproducts, including dioxins, furans and formaldehyde. Many of the most toxic fumes released by today’s fires actually come from chemicals added to everything from clothes to couches to computers in an effort to retard flames. But, as an investigation by the Chicago Tribune uncovered, those additives may offer no meaningful fire protection.

“All of us are exposed to these indoor chemicals, and it’s not only flame retardants,” said Susan Shaw, director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute. “That’s bad enough. But firefighters are exposed to exponentially higher levels of these compounds when they go into a house fire.”

A firefighter’s exposure to chemicals can continue long after the blaze is out. Chemicals may linger on the skin, uniform, respirator, helmet and other gear. And if a firefighter wears any of that stuff home, their family may be exposed as well.

Shaw and her colleagues recently tested the blood of 12 California firefighters immediately after they responded to an alarm. The results, published in June, showed significantly greater concentrations of flame retardants and other modern household chemicals in the firefighters compared with average Americans. Levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, one common flame retardant, were three times higher in the firefighters’ blood.

areal view of mattress on fire

Burning PU foam mattresses release highly toxic chemicals at the Mitchell Island Mattress Fire

“Quite frankly, the chemical companies use methods to persuade us that, to me, are very questionable,” said IAFF’s Patrick Morrison. Advocates point to Dr. David Heimbach in particular. The retired burn center director at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle falsely testified to legislators in multiple states about the safety of chemical flame retardants, while on the payroll of a chemical company that manufactured toxic flame retardants.

“We’re not only concerned about firefighters,” added Stefani. “We’re concerned about the population in general with ongoing, daily chemical exposures.”

Incredibly, petrochemical industry advocates for flame retardants continue to assure the public that FRs are needed to reduce risk of fire in homes and workplaces. This claim flies in the face of fact. 30 years ago you had about 17 minutes to escape a house fire. Today its down to 3 or 4 minutes. The reason? Your furnishings, including your mattress, are now made from highly combustible plastic petrochemicals that burn much faster, and much hotter than the natural materials we once surrounded ourselves with. Big Petro-Chem’s enthusiasm for flame retardants isn’t based on safety. It’s based on money. For without FRs, the vast range of petrochemical products that fill today’s homes would be so acutely combustible as to be unfit for sale.

As for the value of the lives of the men and women whose boots now stand empty? For the petrochemical corporations that manufacture FRs their value is absolute zero. There is no accounting for human life on their corporate balance sheets.

-Len Laycock

Author’s Note: All facts and information referenced in the Why Now? series, including facts and information about chemicals and their impacts on human health and environment, have been drawn from previously published sources in the European Union, United States of America, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and India. Sources include national and state government documents, government funded agencies, national and international corporations, peer reviewed research from universities, the industrial safety industry, material data safety sheets, worker’s compensation board records, articles published in major newspapers, articles published by national and international news reporting services, published authors respected in their fields, and reports and studies published by reputable nonprofits and environmental organizations.