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Firefighters sue over protective gear, alleging it made them sick: "I just couldn't stay on the job"

Firefighters say chemicals in gear are toxic
Lawsuits claim chemicals in firefighters' protective gear cause devastating illnesses 08:47

There is concern among firefighters nationwide about a potential on-the-job hazard they say they face. Cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters — and there's a fresh theory about why.

Many in the firefighting community believe that toxins are not only present in the fires they fight, but also in their turnout gear. Dozens of firefighters filed lawsuits this week alleging that the gear they wear — designed to protect them from fires — is making them sick.

The lawsuits claim the chemicals used to make their gear resistant to flames, water and oil carry a hidden danger that can cause devastating illness.

The chemicals are known as PFAS, Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are a group of artificial compounds that make pans non-stick and materials waterproof or fire retardant, among other things. The lawsuits claim PFAS are associated with adverse health effects, including cancer, in the protective gear worn by firefighters.

The plaintiffs don't put any blame on the fire departments they served. They are seeking damages from companies that make PFAS and manufacture turnout gear. Additionally, the makers of firefighting foam have been named as defendants. Foam helps fight fires but also contains PFAS. 

All the defendants have denied any wrongdoing. The defendants say the weight of the scientific evidence does not show PFAS in their products cause harm in people at current or past levels, including cancer. They add that their products are safe, meet or exceed the applicable industry standards, and enable firefighters to do their jobs safely and effectively. 

Veteran Brockton, Massachusetts firefighter Joe Marchetti wore turnout gear on every call for years. Throughout his time serving as a firefighter, he rose through the ranks to become deputy chief of his department. But now he won't let this iconic symbol of his job, once worn as a second skin, make it past his garage. 

"I won't bring it into my house, with what we know about the turnout gear now, the chemicals that are in it," Marchetti told "CBS Mornings" co-host Tony Dokoupil.  

In 2016, at the age of 46, Marchetti was diagnosed with prostate cancer — a diagnosis he alleges was caused by exposure to chemicals in turnout gear. 

Last year, a blood test revealed Marchetti's PFAS levels were significantly elevated above the general population.  

"These chemicals have been known to cause harm for a long time. And this gear was being supplied to us to protect us," Marchetti said. 

"They're called 'the forever chemicals' and once we manufacture some of them, they last forever, they just migrate through different systems," University of Notre Dame physics Professor Graham Peaslee said. "If they're inhaled or ingested by humans, they'll end up in your body and they'll stay there for many years."

He had already been studying the presence of PFAS in the environment when the wife of another firefighter with prostate cancer convinced him to take a look at the turnout gear. 

At the nuclear research lab on campus, Peaslee's team analyzed 30 different sets of protective gear — noting an outer shell, a moisture barrier, and a thermal liner. 

"We observed the PFAS. They're at high quantities. And they come off. The outer layer of this gear was really highly fluorinated and the moisture barrier's really highly fluorinated," he said. "That's bad."

Subsequent studies co-authored by Peaslee confirmed the presence of PFAS in other turnout gear. His research has been cited in the lawsuits. 

Meanwhile, the firefighting community is grappling with staggering rates of cancer. Since 2015, nearly three out of four firefighters added to the IAFF Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial have died from so-called occupational cancer. Even more have been diagnosed.  

Marc Stelling, a fire captain for the City of Gilroy, California, found out he had stage one cancer after an accident caused a tumor on his kidney to burst. 

"When I was laid out in that hospital bed for eight days, that was belittling to me. I thought of myself as a pretty tough guy. But lying there, helpless, trying to figure out what was going on, that was a whole 'nother game," said Stelling. 

Retired San Jose, California fire investigator Teresa Mauldin battled multiple cancers. 

"I had breast cancer in both breasts. I had a double mastectomy. And then the fourth year the bladder cancer reoccurred. So for four years I battled, and I just couldn't stay on the job," she said. 

Mauldin and Stelling are now cancer-free but retired San Jose Fire captain Dan Stapp is not. He has undergone radiation and hormone therapy for prostate cancer.  

"From what I understand is it is just going to be there, and it just depends on how aggressive we take care of it, and how aggressive it — the cancer itself — gets," Stapp said. 

All three believe they would have been cancer-free if not for their uniforms. They joined a lawsuit filed in 2020 alleging that PFAS in their gear caused their illnesses. They are also seeking damages from companies that make PFAS and manufacture turnout gear. None of them ever considered that wearing their turnout gear could be a risk.  

"It was so ingrained in us it was a safety thing. This was the thing that I wore. It was the thing that I let my daughter dress up in because she wanted to look like mom," Mauldin said. 

Marchetti married into a firefighting family, so it was only natural his son would follow.  

"It's a dangerous job and you know that, to know that his gear that's meant to protect him [Joe] and keep him from harm harmed him and changed him, it makes me ... angry. And it could potentially change my other family members ... my son. I can't even fathom it," his wife Jen Marchetti said. 

Joe Marchetti joins dozens of firefighters in the new lawsuits also seeking damages from PFAS makers and turnout manufacturers. 

After surgery to remove his prostate, he is cancer-free, but side effects from the operation are forcing him to retire eight years early. 

"It's eight years that I don't get to spend with, you know, my brothers in the firehouse. Eight years that I don't get to share this experience with my son. There's a lot to miss," he said.  

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