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Why Are Firefighters Wondering if Their Job is Worth It?

Whenever a firefighter passes by, it is natural to feel a sense of awe. Their job is considered to be one of the most dangerous professions in the world. The practice of firefighting has come a long way. 

Earlier, firefighters mostly used buckets of water or a long hose to put out fires. Today, these basic equipment have advanced. Moreover, next-gen technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) are also helping the industry protect more lives. 

If you were to ask a firefighter, they would gladly admit that they love their job. However, it seems there has been a bit of hesitation in this area recently. Let’s dive into the truth of why some firefighters are questioning their decision to become one. 

A Revered and Dangerous Profession 

It needs no explanation that firefighting comes with its fair share of dangers and risks. Firefighters run towards a scene that others are running out of. Not only can the fire’s temperature be as high as 2000 degrees Fahrenheit but accessing the burning structure can be challenging. 

The heavy smoke and heat can make it difficult to see clearly and access every trapped victim. Many are at risk of experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning due to inhaling too much smoke. Some of the most common injuries that firefighters suffer from include severe burns, lacerations, slip-and-fall, and overexertion, among others. 

Hidden Dangers Discovered 

The job of a firefighter certainly comes with inherent risks. At the time of joining the office, every firefighter must take an oath. Much like any other military personnel, they swear to faithfully perform their duties regardless of the personal risks and dangerous circumstances. 

By nature of the work, not everyone is indeed cut out to become a firefighter. However, a danger these professionals were not aware of has come to light. In recent years, it has been discovered that Class B firefighting foam may be toxic to human health. 

This foam, also known as Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF), has been a huge part of the industry since the 1960s. It was mainly used to put out fires that started due to gasoline and other liquid fuels. The foam derives its important characteristic of low viscosity from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS. 

These are a group of over 12,000 chemicals, each sharing a unique and tight carbon-fluorine bond. Besides PFAS being used to produce AFFF, even the firefighting gear is known to be lined with a thin film of these chemicals. This is done to make the gear repellent to oil and water. 

The most widely studied PFAS, or perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), is a known carcinogen. Firefighters developed cancer due to regular exposure to these chemicals at work. TorHoerman Law shares that testicular, kidney, and bladder cancers have been the most commonly reported injuries. 

At the time of taking a fireman’s oath, firefighting officers did not sign up for such injuries. This is especially true since PFAS manufacturers failed to issue risk warnings despite being aware of the dangers. In 2017, the AFFF firefighter foam cancer lawsuit was started to seek legal justice. 

This litigation grew to include two broad categories – personal injury lawsuits filed by firefighters and water contamination lawsuits filed by municipalities. The latest update is that the latter category of cases has been settled, whereas the former is awaiting Bellwether trials. 

Seeing the wreckage of decades of AFFF usage, non-fluorine alternatives are on the horizon. 3M has agreed to stop manufacturing PFAS by the end of 2025. Still, the damage has been done and is far-reaching. 

Fear of Cancer Stronger than the Fear of Fire 

In a recent interview, firefighter Jay Leach of Bellbrook, Ohio, painfully narrated the incident of his wife. Tracy had also been a firefighter for 25 years before she received a breast cancer diagnosis. She had no family history of the disease but Jay was the witness to how cancer ravaged her body. 

On the Christmas Eve of 2022, Tracy breathed her last. The fires of decades past could not touch her but the forever chemicals she was exposed to took her life. Jay carries a picture of his wife whenever he gets a call and tearfully states that he “wholeheartedly” believes that PFAS was the cause of her demise. 

Though Leach is glad that non-toxic foam variants have emerged, concerns prevail regarding thousands of gallons still found across fire stations. His state, Ohio, is among the first to show a commitment toward eliminating all traces of PFAS-based AFFF. 

The primary concern is not even the chemicals found in AFFF but those lining the gear. Leach is right when he says that these chemicals can easily enter the body through open pores after sweating. That’s when he finds himself wondering if his job is worth the risk. 

Notwithstanding the struggles a firefighter faces in general, seldom any would wish for another job. They are perfectly aware of the dangers they may encounter, even the possibility of walking into their own grave. 

However, the unknown risks that PFAS invited, especially having to watch a spouse die can be excruciating. A man may endure anything that befalls him but not his family. From that viewpoint, doubting the significance of such a profession is valid.