Cancer concerns from first responders

Cancer concerns from first responders (Pixabay/MGN)

CINCINNATI (WKRC) - First it was chemicals in drinking water. Now, a local attorney is trying to find out if chemicals in equipment firefighters use may be getting them sick possibly very sick. The attorney is Northern Kentucky’s Rob Bilott. Bilott won a three-quarter-of-a-billion-dollar class action settlement from DuPont Chemical over substances which ended up in the drinking water supply in parts of West Virginia and Eastern Ohio. Now, a Boone County firefighter is willing to become the face of this latest issue.

Jeff Hermes is Chief of the Belleview-McVille Fire Department in a rural part of the county. Hermes says he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in December, 2016. For nearly 20 years, before his current job, Hermes was a firefighter at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, and then at the Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky International Airport.

Firefighters like Jeff Hermes and others don’t just use water to put out fires. They use firefighting foam, for petroleum-based fires. Gasoline, oil, car fires, airplane fires. And all firefighters, whatever the fire, wear helmets and turnout gear.

At issue, highly fluorinated chemicals, one called PFOA and another called PFOS. In foam, highly fluorinated chemicals help smother fires. In gear, they can help keep out water and stains. Hermes and his lawyer, Rob Bilott, want to find out if those chemicals are responsible for any firefighter illnesses. At least half a dozen studies say firefighters have a higher cancer rate than the general public does.

As Bilott noted in a letter to federal regulators “ for many years, unusually high rates of cancer and other adverse health effects have been observed among our nation’s fire fighters and emergency responders, particularly among responders who handle or use firefighting foam or wear gear treated or made with [PFOA of PFOS].

Bilott tells Local 12 News “These people should not be exposed to unknown risk in the foam and the equipment they’re using. They’re taking on enough risks as it is to help protect us. They shouldn’t be exposed to something unknowingly that’s putting their own lives at risk.”

Bilott and Hermes are asking the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, ATSDR, to immediately begin a nationwide study, to see if highly fluorinated chemicals are indeed connected to firefighter illnesses.

Hermes says “honestly, the light for me, the light went on when you get the call on the phone. Hey Jeff, you have cancer and it’s prostate cancer. It’s life-changing, and you really start to do some research as to where this came from.”

There are warning signs. PFOA in drinking water has already been statistically linked to six diseases, including kidney and testicular cancer. That link was established by an independent science panel in Rob Bilott’s West Virginia water case.

So, the US Air Force is taking water wells out of service at or near air bases nationwide, because elevated levels of PFOA and PFOS have been found. Firefighting foam which contained the chemicals may be to blame for the contamination, so this older type of foam is being phased out.

The chemical industry and fire gear industry do not see a threat to firefighters. 3M was a major manufacturer of firefighting foam. The company phased out PFOA and PFOS more than a decade ago, but says “We believe that PFOA and PFOS do not present health risks at levels they are typically found in the environment or in human blood”. 3M also says even if it is in firefighters’ blood, there is no proven cause relationship between that and firefighter illness.

Dayton-based Lion Company is a major gear manufacturer, which says it does not use PFOA or PFOS in its gear. In a letter to Local 12 News, the company says they “recently reviewed one class action attorney’s false statement that ‘firefighter gear is treated or made with’ PFOA or PFOS and suggesting firefighter cancers may be attributable to their turnout gear.” Lion, which provides the turnout gear at Jeff Hermes’ fire station, says it has never used those chemicals, although it is possible that “trace amounts” of PFOA may have been present in materials received from suppliers. However, Lion says “based on all available scientific data, such nominal trace amounts, if they existed at all would not have posed any health risk to firefighters.” Lion says higher firefighter cancer rates likely come from various carcinogenic substances produced by fires.

Attorney Bilott says he’s not accusing the Lion Company or any other company of anything, he’s just raising questions.

One study found PFOS among nine fluorinated chemicals which were “exclusively or significantly more frequently detected at higher levels in firefighters compared to controls.”

But can that be linked to diseases? Firefighter Hermes and his lawyer want first responders around the nation blood tested, to find out for sure. If not, they may sue. Bilott tells Local 12 News that Congress recently approved $10 million for a study of the impact of these chemicals, but it’s unclear right now if that study will look specifically at firefighters. Meantime, at the firehouse in rural Boone County, Jeff Hermes says “this is not about making a dollar. This is about protecting my brothers and sisters.”

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