By Gabrielle Emmanuel April 18, 2023

It looks like a knitting room, with wicker baskets and soft yarns. But Diane Cotter calls it her war room.

“This is where the research is done and the strategies come into fruition,” she said, looking around the small room off her kitchen. “There was a long time that I wasn’t knitting because I was so immersed in the war.”

Cotter’s war started late one night in 2014.

Her husband, a longtime firefighter in Worcester, had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Complications from the treatment forced him to give up his career as a firefighter. Soon depression set in.

“While he was sitting in a reclining chair, slipping further and further away, I began researching,” she said. She typed “firefighter cancer” into her browser.

Staying up late, night after night, Cotter searched for clues about whether something about her husband’s work could have caused his cancer. After a conversation with environmental activist Erin Brockovich, she zeroed in on PFAS chemicals.

PFAS, which stands for per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of chemicals invented in the 1930s. They are used widely because they are good at making surfaces repel water, oil and grease. These chemicals are infused into the protective clothing firefighters wear.

Although it’s unclear whether they caused her husband’s illness, some PFAS chemicals have been linked to health concerns, including kidney cancer and testicular cancer. Nearly a decade later, Cotter has played a significant role in spurring scientists, firefighters and politicians to reckon with the presence of PFAS in firefighters’ gear.

Banners supporting firefighters at Diane Cotter's home. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Banners supporting firefighters at Diane Cotter’s home. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

PFAS chemicals were also used historically in some firefighting foams, and they continue to be used in a broad range of consumer products, including non-stick pots and pans, dental floss and toilet paper. Chemical companies say some types of PFAS are safe. But scientists remain concerned by the way these substances accumulate in people’s bodies and the environment.

As the public begins to grapple with how to address these chemicals, a number of Massachusetts firefighters and their families find themselves at the forefront of this fight. They’ve raised awareness about PFAS not just in firehouses, but also in statehouses and courthouses.

“It’s a canary in the coal mine situation,” said Courtney Carignan, an exposure scientist at Michigan State University who studies PFAS. “The firefighting community has a very strong interest in these issues because their exposure to PFAS and other chemicals is so much higher than the general population.”

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