Firefighters Unite in Washington DC to Address Toxic Exposure Crisis

U.S. Advocates Impacted by Toxic Contamination Meet in DC

Advocates across the nation are connecting and learning that government agencies meant to protect the environment and public health have failed to safeguard natural resources and track disease clusters plaguing their neighborhoods and hundreds of other communities. These families are coming together to hold agencies accountable for doing their job. 

Hundreds of advocates and their families met in Freedom Plaza to recount their heart-wrenching stories of how industry pollution has impacted their communities. They traveled to Washington, DC, to tell agencies that it was time to protect people, not industries.

From contaminated water to soil and air, these communities were forced to do the job of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and their state health departments as they fell sick and began to uncover the negligence of polluting industries surrounding their homes. When corporations self-report their data and pollution "spills" and have input over the EPA and other agency decision-making processes, it's the fox guarding the hen house.

There is a misconception that contamination happens only in rare circumstances in the United States. When you mention water contamination, people think of the infamous Erin Brockovich case in Hinkley, California, and don't fathom that it's likely happening in their backyard.

International Association of Fire Fighters President Edward Kelly speaking at Freedom Plaza. Image by John Nelson

Firefighter PFAS & Occupational Exposures

The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) President Edward Kelly spoke of the risks firefighters face with PFAS substances in firefighters' personal protective equipment (PPE). PFAS plays a role in contributing to the increased incidence of cancer among firefighters. The IAFF represents more than 326,000 professional firefighters, paramedics, and emergency medical dispatchers across the United States and Canada. 

"For many years, we thought our cancers were caused by smoke, off-gassing from burning combustibles, building debris," Kelly said. "Now we know our own gear is part of that problem. The very thing that is supposed to be keeping us safe is costing us our lives." 

Several powerful voices came to Washington DC to demand that federal agencies do more to regulate toxic chemicals impacting firefighters. 

Nationwide Contamination of PFAS Chemicals

Nearly all Americans have some exposure to PFAS, and these chemicals have been found in water supplies across the country. Since the 1940's PFAS have been manufactured and used in industrial applications and firefighting. PFAS doesn't break down in the environment, can move through soil contaminating drinking water, and are very persistent in the environment and human body. Exposure to these chemicals has adverse reproductive, developmental, and immunological effects. Millions of Americans are exposed to PFAS-contaminated water, and the EPA failed to take action for 20 years after being made aware of the health hazards of these toxic fluorinated chemicals in 1998.

Relentless Advocacy in the Face of Adversity

President Kelly recognized Diane Cotter, who was at the rally with her husband, Paul, a Worcester, MA, firefighter. Diane's pursuit for answers after suspecting that turnout gear was behind Paul's cancer diagnosis in 2014 led to a study by Notre Dame nuclear physicist Graham Peaslee, Ph.D., finding dangerous carcinogens in the protective gear. 

The fight wasn't always easy for Diane, who was among the first to raise concerns over PFAS in gear. The Cotters were shunned by the firefighter's union and the IAFF General President at the time, Harold Schaitberger. Her search for answers quickly made their family the target of viciously made-up rumors and intimidation tactics by the union and corporate operatives to silence them. Through persecution, she persisted, and the relentless efforts to discredit her failed as she exposed the truth through scientific research and now has tremendous support in opposing PFAS in gear. 

The Cotter's experience with retaliation is echoed across America as advocates share details of their encounters with government, industry, and agencies. 

"President Kelly gave long-awaited recognition that I have been seeking from the IAFF. I am very grateful. It removed a hole in my heart that I've been carrying. It was an emotional moment I did not know was coming and didn't realize how badly I needed it." - Diane Cotter


Diane Cotter (Worcester, MA), Stel Bailey (Brevard County, Florida), Elizabeth Baker (Titusville, Florida), Representative Jim McGovern), Paul Cotter (Worcester, MA), Kevin Ferrara (Pennsylvania) 

Cancer Incidence Among Firefighters

Firefighters are at higher risk of developing cancer than the general U.S. population. They can be exposed to hundreds of chemicals, from gases to vapors and byproducts of combustion or burning. The blazes they fight today contain synthetic plastics and chemicals that coat firefighters in toxic soot. Fire departments nationwide are taking exposure and protection more seriously. 

Kevin Ferrara

US Air Force veteran and owner of AFSO 21, Kevin Ferrara, is a leading and passionate voice on firefighter health and safety issues, including occupational cancer and PFAS exposures. He served as a volunteer firefighter and airman at various military bases. Ferrara was exposed to Aqueous Film Foam (AFFF) almost daily in his career as he was in charge of discharging the foam and, after retiring, had a blood test done for PFAS exposure. His test result showed about 22,000 parts per trillion (ppt) of PFAS. Working to change the future, Ferrara passionately educates listeners on his podcast and brings forward candid discussions on harmful exposures. 

Firefighter Jason Burns speaking at Freedom Plaza. Image by John Nelson

Jason Burns

Massachusetts firefighter Jason Burns has witnessed numerous friends develop and succumb to occupational cancer. Burns's fight started a few years ago when he buried two fellow firefighters who died in their 30s. According to the International Association of Fire Fighters, two out of every three firefighters who died in the line of duty died of cancer. Burns is seeing a shift in the fire service where his generation is getting sicker and younger and has dedicated time to advocate for changes that would help better protect his colleagues. 

"We have a problem in the fire service, and it's not just my local, it's happening all over the country," Burns said. "Fire fighters are dealing with cancer at rates we have never seen. I have seen too many widows and too many fatherless children now. I will no longer tolerate having these chemicals in my gear." 


9/11 Survivors Face High Cancer Risk

Firefighters and other first responders to the World Trade Center (WTC) attacks on September 11, 2001, have higher rates of blood cancer and other diseases because they were exposed to ash, debris, and harmful particles as massive dust clouds covered New York City after the collapse of the Twin Towers. The continuing fires in the aftermath of 9/11 also exposed residents and workers to carcinogenic combustion by-products. Workers were also exposed to hazardous chemicals at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Those impacted had to fight for monitoring and treatment for 9/11-related health conditions. It is estimated that 400,000 people were exposed to toxic contaminants in days, weeks, and months following the attacks. 

9/11 Survivor Rob Serra

At 21 years old, Rob Serra had just graduated from the FDNY academy on September 10, 2001. The following day he would fight his first fire at Ground Zero in New York City. Serra hadn't even been assigned a firehouse yet but willingly got on a bus heading toward the catastrophic World Trade Center fire alongside other responders. His gear was so new that he pulled off tags during the afternoon ride toward the site. Serra spent countless hours on site helping pull debris out and volunteered to go back in the following days and months. During that work, he was exposed to harmful toxins and immediately experienced nose bleeds that continued for years. Then nearly a decade after 9/11, he started having neurological, autoimmune, and neuropathy issues. Neuropathy isn't recognized or covered under the WTC Health Center Program, but Serra is one of the numerous volunteers behind the Ray Pfeifer Foundation. This was formed after one of his mentors, Ray Pfeifer, passed from a 9/11 cancer. The foundation helps first responders with medical needs not covered by insurance. 

9/11 Survivor Joe McKay

Joe McKay made it to the chaotic scene of lower Manhattan after the towers collapsed and began putting out fires. He spent days searching for survivors and digging through piles of debris while exposed to toxic air. A little over two weeks after the attacks, McKay was fitted with a respirator, but by that time, he was already exposed to harmful toxins. Six months after September 11, 2001, he began experiencing stabbing pain behind his eye, later diagnosed as cluster headaches. According to the CDC, nearly 21 percent of those exposed to 9/11's toxins experience severe headaches. McKay has played a vital role in helping push for health benefits and compensation for 9/11 responders and has helped lobby alongside comedian John Steward to secure funding for 9/11 victims' healthcare.

SAFE Dinner in Washington DC with advocates from Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Hawaii, Alabama, Louisana, Massachusets, and other states throughout the country.

Full Links & Additional Reading:
  • Cancer cluster reported:,state%20health%20departments%20each%20year
  • Cancer in Firefighters:
  • Consumer Reports:
  • Correlation between contamination water and leukemia:
  • EPA Risk Document:
  • Diane Cotter:
  • IAFF:
  • SAFE:
  • The Ray Pfeifer Foundation:
  • World Trade Center:
  • World Trade Center (WTC) Health Program.

Stel Bailey

Stel Bailey is a community leader committed to environmental justice, protecting service members from toxic exposures, and shielding children from the detrimental effects of pollution. Stel is not only a survivor of cancer but also a mother of two, a prelaw student, a globally-published freelance journalist, a speaker, and an outdoor adventurer.

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