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Bill to protect firefighters from toxic chemicals heads to President Biden's desk

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A bill to remove toxic chemicals from firefighting equipment is on its way to President Biden’s desk after passing in the U.S. Senate late last week.

The bill directs federal agencies to implement new strategies for reducing firefighters' exposure to polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, a forever chemical linked to several health problems, including cancer.

Specifically, the Protecting Firefighters from Adverse Substances (PFAS) Act will develop educational resources to help protect firefighters, emergency response personnel from PFAS exposure. Federal, state and local fire departments are all eligible to receive information and training on best practices on limiting PFAS exposure and the programs will help identify and develop tools and equipment firefighters can use that don't contain the forever chemical.

Fire departments across the nation have expressed relief after the bill passed both halls of congress.

“To see a bill like this get to the President's desk is long overdue,” Matthew Sahr, President of the Michigan Professional Firefighters Union, which represents 5,000 firefighters across the state. “It's long overdue, if they knew, or they even have an inkling that hey, this could potentially be hurting us. Why is this been done sooner?,” said Sahr regarding what his union members are telling him about the legislation.

Jacob Steichen, President of the Traverse City Firefighters Union, said the bill will likely have an immediate impact on the department and provide the necessary tools they need to make sure they limited exposure.

“Any of our gear that we're using currently that has the PFAS materials and components, will either have those taken out of service and replaced with a newer gear,” said Steichen.

But Steichen mentioned that getting PFAS entirely out of turnout gear, or fire suits, is going to be hard because PFAS is good at its job: repelling water.

“There's a ton of effort and a ton of money being put forth right now finding an alternative or the best alternative that will allow us to do our job and maintain a level of safety that we desire,” said Steichen

Law requires all firefighters must have two suits at around $4,000 dollars each. According to Steichen, the bill will help departments cover costs for new suits.

The potential drawback of removing PFAS from all firefighting equipment is the suits will not be able to repel water as effectively in harsh conditions and create safety issues.

“The side effects of those clearly outweigh any benefit they're giving to our firefighters,” said Sahr. “We need to find a safe alternative that's going to also protect us.”

Rick joined WCMU as a general assignment reporter in March 2022.