San Jose firefighters allege gear gave them cancer
A group of 49 current and former San Jose firefighters filed two lawsuits in December 2020 and March against 27 manufacturing companies, alleging the firefighting foam they used at fires and their protective equipment cause cancer. File photo.

When firefighter Teresa Mauldin was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2013, she attributed it to the dangers of the job. But Mauldin and more than four dozen San Jose firefighters now attribute the danger to the equipment they used and wore every day.

“I feel betrayed,” she said.

A group of 49 current and former San Jose firefighters, along with three of their spouses, filed two lawsuits in December and March against 27 manufacturing companies including 3M and DuPont. The firefighters allege the suppressing foam they used and their protective equipment—otherwise known as turnout gear—contained per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, known to cause cancer according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

PFAS is nearly indestructible and can linger on clothing for decades, where it can be absorbed into the skin.

“I have to feel like the companies were compensated in some way that they said it was worth the risk for me and all my brothers and sisters,” Mauldin said.

Mauldin, now retired, spent 20 years with the San Jose Fire Department and worked her way up to arson investigator. She was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2013 and is also a breast cancer survivor.

She said the biggest impact was on her daughter, now 16.

“I remember her coming to the hospital to visit me. I was hooked up to all these monitors,” Mauldin recalled. “She came around the curtain and she just froze. She was petrified.”

Attorneys from Oakland-based law firm Pritzker Levine, LLP are representing the group of firefighters. They allege the defendants knowingly denied their equipment contained PFAS and never informed firefighters about it.

“Nobody has much bad to say about firefighters,” said Elizabeth Pritzker, co-founding partner of Pritzker Levine. “I think we owe them all our support.”

According to the firefighters’ complaint, 3M knew about PFAS toxicity as far back as 1950, and DuPont knew as far back as 1961 but continued manufacturing equipment with the substance.

The plaintiffs didn’t learn of their PFAS exposure until July 2020, when tests from the University of California, San Francisco revealed the firefighters had dangerously high levels of the substance in their blood. By then, nearly all the plaintiffs had some type of cancer. The university also tested another group of firefighters in December and found elevated PFAS levels in their blood.

Nearly all the firefighters involved in the lawsuits had careers in the San Jose Fire Department, though some worked stints at the Gilroy, Santa Clara and Redwood City fire departments. All of the firefighters served for at least a decade, with some working more than 30 years. They routinely took their turnouts home to wash, potentially exposing their families to PFAS.

When George Vega, a 32-year veteran of the Redwood City and San Jose fire departments, learned of the PFAS levels in his blood, he had already fought prostate cancer for several years. Vega joined SJFD in 1981 and retired in 2006.

“It’s tough knowing I’m not the only one,” Vega said. His son, a captain in the fire department, suffers from Crohn’s disease. “We take major risks to save lives, but you feel like you’re protected when you go into a fire. The last risk you think about is the equipment makes you sick.”

Several companies named in the lawsuits claimed they acted responsibly when manufacturing products that contained PFAS.

“3M acted responsibly in connection with products containing PFAS and will vigorously defend our record in this case,” said 3M spokesperson Sean Lynch in a statement to San José Spotlight.

Kathleen Cantillon, a spokesperson for Tyco and Chemguard, told San José Spotlight that the company “acted appropriately and responsibly.”

“We make our foams to exacting military standards, and the U.S. military and civilian firefighters have depended on them for decades,” Cantillon said. “We will vigorously defend this lawsuit.”

Carrier and Kiddie declined to comment citing the pending litigation. The other 22 companies could not be immediately reached for comment.

A 2016 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found firefighters are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer compared to the general public. Cancer is the leading cause of death in the profession.

While a 2020 study attributed the high diagnosis rates among firefighters to smoke inhalation, fires and inhaling particles from burning debris, an increasing amount of research—primarily from a 2020 University of Notre Dame multiyear study—has shifted at least part of the blame to turnouts and suppressing foam that contain PFAS.

The firefighters and representatives for the defendants will appear before a superior court judge in San Francisco in August. The plaintiffs hope to receive monetary compensation from the equipment manufacturers.

“I’ve suffered a lot because of this,” Mauldin said. “But the part that really triggers me is that the ones that were supposed to protect me failed miserably.”

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Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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