DOI: 10.1177/15280837231217401 ISSN: 1528-0837

Toward the future of firefighter gear: Assessing fluorinated and non-fluorinated outer shells following simulated on-the-job exposures

Nur-Us-Shafa Mazumder, Jingtian Lu, Andrew Stephen Hall, Arash Kasebi, Arjunsing Girase, Farzaneh Masoud, Jeffrey O. Stull, R. Bryan Ormond
  • Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering
  • Polymers and Plastics
  • Materials Science (miscellaneous)
  • Chemical Engineering (miscellaneous)

In 2022, the occupation of firefighting was categorized as a “Group 1” carcinogen, meaning it is known to be carcinogenic to humans. The personal protective equipment that structural firefighters wear is designed to safeguard them from thermal, physical, and chemical hazards while maintaining thermo-physiological comfort. Typically, the outer layer of structural turnout gear is finished with a durable water and oil-repellent (DWR) based on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that helps limit exposure to water and hazardous liquids. The PFAS-based aqueous emulsion typically used in DWR finishes is highly persistent and can cause various health problems if absorbed into the body through ingestion, inhalation, and/or dermal absorption. In response, the U.S. Fire Service has begun using non-PFAS water repellants in firefighter turnout gear. This study aims to evaluate the performance of both traditional PFAS-based and alternative non-PFAS outer shell materials. The study involved exposing both PFAS-based and non-PFAS DWR outer shell materials in turnout composites to simulated job exposures (i.e., weathering, thermal exposure, and laundering) that artificially aged the materials. After exposures, samples were evaluated for repellency, durability, thermal protection, and surface chemistry analysis to determine any potential performance trade-offs that may exist. Non-PFAS outer shell fabrics were found not to be diesel/oil-repellent, posing a potential flammability hazard if exposed to diesel and subsequent flame on an emergency response. Both PFAS-based and non-PFAS sets of fabrics performed similarly in terms of thermal protective performance, tearing strength, and water repellency. The surface analysis suggests that both PFAS and non-PFAS chemistries can degrade and shed from fabrics during the aging process. The study indicates that firefighters should be educated and trained regarding the potential performance trade-offs, such as oil absorption and flammability concerns when transitioning to non-PFAS outer shell materials.

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