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Vancouver firefighters get $2.8M from city to procure gear free of cancer-causing chemicals

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Vancouver’s fire department is on track to become the first in North America to provide gear that’s free of cancer-causing chemicals, after securing more than $2.8 million in municipal funds.

City council unanimously approved a one-time budget request from Vancouver Fire Rescue Services on Tuesday, supporting the department’s purchase of Per-and-Polyfluoroalkyl-Substances-free bunker gear.

‘Forever chemicals’ linked to cancer

In her report to city council, Fire Chief Karen Fry explained that exposure to PFAS—commonly known as “forever chemicals” that are widely-used in traditional bunker gear—has been linked to cancer and other diseases.

In August 2022, the International Association of Fire Fighters alerted its members to the adverse health risks posed by these chemicals, marking a watershed moment on the journey to remove PFAS from use in fire service.

Late last year, a PFAS-free moisture barrier was certified by the National Fire Protection Association for use in structural firefighting, prompting the VFRS to place a partial order.

That wasn’t enough to supply the entire workforce however, which is why the VFRS turned to city council for help with the $3.7-million purchase.

Following the unanimous vote, Fry told CTV News that the new gear will help Vancouver firefighters better serve their community.

“They’ve had to make a lot of modifications in the last few years—limiting the training they’re doing while wearing the gear, limiting their exposure to only wear their gear when really necessary—so they’re going to be super proud of the work the union has done in the background,” she explained.

Protecting active and retired firefighters

IAFF Local 18’s vice-president, Lee Lax, says the acquisition of PFAS-free gear is about protecting firefighters on duty while ensuring they can have a healthy retirement.

He pointed to the legacy of retired VFRS Battalion Chief Bruce Tebbutt, who died of cancer at age 62 last year, as an example of why this gear is so important.

“He served his community for 35 years and succumbed to occupational cancer just five years after he retired,” Lax said. “Cancer remains the number one killer of firefighters.”

Since 2017, VFRS says occupational cancer has killed 32 local firefighters, both active and in retirement.

Calls for Canada-wide action

There’s a strong push across B.C. for the province to prioritize the safety of these first responders.

Adam Olsen, the B.C. Green Party MLA for Saanich North and the Islands, introduced a private members bill last month called the Firefighters Protection Act.

If passed, the bill would ban cancer-causing substances in firefighter gear and foam.

In a May 14 news release, Olsen highlights the fact that many jurisdictions still use foam containing PFAS, often unknowingly, despite PFAS-free alternatives being widely available.

“There is no regulation on which fire departments can use foams containing PFAS, nor an accompanying code of best practice,” the statement reads.

Olsen wants to see the province create anew standard and timeline so that all fire services in B.C. are able to access PFAS-free gear—including those in smaller, rural communities.

“It’s time we prevent harm with better gear regulations. It’s our job to protect crews from these unseen dangers, just as they protect us,” Olsen wrote in a March 14 news release.

Later this month, the IAFF will be pushing the federal government to address the heightened cancer risks facing firefighters, including by banning the manufacture, import and use of PFAS.

With files from CTV News Vancouver’s Isabella Zavarise

 

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