Fighting to Protect the Brave

Diane Cotter knew cancer was a risk of her husband’s job. Paul had been a firefighter for 27 years, and they had been advised of not only the safety risks, but also the health implications from exposure to diesel exhaust and products of combustion. But when Paul, a 55-year-old in great shape, who ate healthy and took care of himself, received a prostate cancer diagnosis, Diane suspected something other than smoke was the culprit.

A hunch drew her to consider his gear — the protective clothing that had kept him safe as he rushed into burning buildings, saved lives and put out fires. As it turned out, that gear may have been a cause of his cancer.

Firefighter gear is complex — it has to be able to withstand both fire and water, and to resist extreme temperatures. The multiple layers — a thermal liner, a moisture barrier and an outer shell — must pass the National Fire Protection Association standards. Research had been done to study the gear and its textiles, but little existed about the chemical coatings on the gear that make it so effective.

Determined to learn more, Diane began digging. She emailed firefighters, activists, manufacturers. Many tried to shrug her off, but she was persistent. She pored over safety recalls, international regulations. Finally, she received a tip: Ask if the chemicals PFOA or PFOS are present in the gear.

Her research led her to believe that yes, chemicals known collectively as PFAS must be present in the gear, but manufacturers refused to provide information about the chemical content. And so she began looking for someone who could independently assess the clothing and give her an answer.

“What we didn’t know was how much of these coatings were on the turnout gear and we didn’t have the chemical breakdown,” she says. “And we had no one to tell us what was in the coatings until we found Dr. Peaslee.”

Read more here.

About the Series:

The University of Notre Dame’s award-winning “What Would You Fight For?” series showcases the work, scholarly achievements, and global impact of Notre Dame faculty, students, and alumni. These two-minute segments, each originally aired during a home football game broadcast on NBC, highlight the University’s proud moniker, the Fighting Irish, and tell the stories of the members of the Notre Dame family who fight to bring solutions to a world in need.

Learn More

October 11, 2019

Health and SocietyScience and TechnologyPFASCollege of ScienceGraham Peaslee