News & Politics

PA firefighters urge Shapiro to remove PFAS chemicals from their gear

Shapiro visited Blair County this week to promote his budget’s proposed investments in first responders.

Altoona Fire Chief Adam Free speaks about issues that first responders are facing during a press conference on Monday, April 3.

Altoona Fire Chief Adam Free speaks about issues that first responders are facing during a press conference on Monday, April 3. Commonwealth Media Services

By Marley Parish

While touting proposed budgetary investments in first responders this week, Gov. Josh Shapiro also issued a commitment to removing cancer-causing chemicals from firefighters’ equipment.

During a stop in Blair County on Monday, as part of a statewide tour to promote his 2023-24 budget plan, the Democratic governor – pledging to work with the politically divided legislature – said his administration is committed to removing a group of chemicals called PFAS from gear worn by first responders and found in foam.

“We are going to work together to make sure we get PFAS out of the equipment that we’re asking you to wear,” Shapiro said outside the Altoona Fire Department. “We’re already on that issue.”

PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are manufactured chemicals linked to cancer, a leading cause of firefighter deaths, and other health issues. They are highly effective at extinguishing high-heat liquid fuel fires, but their adverse health effects have spurred criticism for years.

“Changes need to be made by manufacturers to remove this life-threatening chemical from our gear,” said Pat Miller, an Altoona firefighter and the western vice president of the Pennsylvania Professional Fire Fighters Association.

Miller also urged the governor to prioritize supporting first responders with post-traumatic stress injuries, saying that having job security while receiving help for a PTSI could ultimately save lives.

Earlier this year, the Republican-controlled Senate voted 36-14 to approve a bill from Sen. Gene Yaw prohibiting the use of Class B firefighting foams with PFAS for training purposes.

The proposal, now before the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, does not restrict gear with PFAS, but it does require equipment manufacturers to attach a warning label noting if a piece of personal protective equipment contains PFAS.

“PFAS contamination is a national public health challenge, and this bill is a commonsense response, which has already been adopted by many states,” Yaw said in a statement. “This bill will undoubtedly protect firefighters moving forward while safeguarding our ground and surface water from contamination.”

Shapiro’s proposed spending plan includes $36 million for EMS providers’ and firefighters’ equipment, training and staffing. He’s also proposed using more than $50 million to support county-level 911 emergency response systems.

“When Pennsylvanians are in need of help, we need to ensure help is on the way,” Shapiro said. “And that is why investing in our emergency operations centers and personnel is a top priority for my administration.”

The Shapiro administration estimates that 20% of full-time 911 dispatch jobs remain unfilled in Pennsylvania, reporting 22,000 fewer volunteer firefighters in 2018 compared to the early 2000s, and at least 6,000 fewer emergency medical technicians compared to 2012.

For years, counties and local governments have voiced concern about the growing strain on emergency services personnel, with volunteer-based fire departments and EMS providers considering shutting down due to financial stress and declining staff numbers.

Altoona Fire Chief Adam Free said the proposed spending plan helps ensure that first responders have “the proper resources to provide the essential services necessary to keep our citizens safe and secure.”

“Without this necessary funding, the safety and security of our citizens could be in jeopardy,” Free said.

Marley Parish is a reporter for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.