Firefighters and Flame-Retardant Chemicals

Crossposted from Huffington Post

Tony Stefani is an American hero. Not just because of his 28 years of service as a captain with the San Francisco Fire Department. Not just because he’s a cancer survivor who started a non-profit to prevent cancer among firefighters. All of that would make him hero enough, but not enough for Tony.

For years Tony has been a tireless advocate for better fire safety standards without harmful flame-retardant chemicals. His battle against these risky chemicals began after he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that his doctor said was usually only seen in chemical industry workers. Then he learned that two other firefighters from his station developed a more common version of the same cancer.

We are all exposed to risky flame-retardant chemicals every day. Most of the furniture sold in the U.S. is doused with these toxic chemicals — in some cases as much as two pounds of flame retardants are used in a single couch. In our recent work, CEH found flame retardants in baby products and nap mats used in daycares nationwide. Some flame retardants are known to causecancer, and others can interfere with hormones, reproductive systems, thyroid and metabolic function, and neurological development in infants and children, among other health hazards.

But firefighters face a double burden. In addition to these everyday exposures, firefighters can be dosed with massive amounts of these chemicals, and the cancer-causing dioxins and furans that are produced when the chemicals burn, when they work in and around burning buildings. A recent study found that the levels of a common flame retardant in the blood of 12 firefighters studied was 2-3 times higher than the levels found in the general population. One firefighter in the study had 11 times more of this flame retardant in his blood than average. Women firefighters face particular risks: A recent survey found that 10 of 117 women firefighters in San Francisco between ages 40 and 50 had developed breast cancer, nearly six times higher than the rate for women of that age in the general population.

When Tony Stefani connected his workplace exposures with his cancer diagnosis, he decided to take action. He founded the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation, an all-volunteer non-profit organization dedicated to the prevention and detection of cancer in both active and retired firefighters of the San Francisco Fire Department. The group’s annual screenings have caught six cancer cases so far.

He also speaks out regularly at legislative hearings to insure that California lawmakers know that we need a new state standard for furniture flammability, one that offers better fire safety and doesn’t require companies to use harmful chemicals. Now, California regulators are listening. The state has finally proposed an update to a 38-year-old standard, an outdated approach that has resulted in widespread use of flame-retardant chemicals in furniture nationwide. The updated standard takes a modern, scientific approach to fire safety, without harmful chemicals.

What’s Tony’s response? He’s started a petition calling for support of this new, safer standard. He also plans to be in Sacramento on March 26 to speak at a public hearing on the issue and deliver the signatures on the day the public comment period closes.

Firefighters know the risks they face every time they respond to a call. Given their daily life-saving service to our communities, shouldn’t we all take one minute to help prevent avoidable illnesses to firefighters — especially when this simple action will also help protect our children’s and families’ health? Please take a minute today to sign Tony’s petition in support of safer fire safety.