CDC investigating safety of SC firefighters' pants

By Ron Menchaca
The Post and Courier

CHARLESTON, SC — The city of Charleston moved quickly last year to replace its firefighters' polyester station uniforms after The Post and Courier reported that the material could melt in high heat and subject firefighters to unnecessary danger.

But the brand of fire-retardant pants the city bought to replace the old ones is now the subject of a federal health investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The agency launched its probe last week at the request of the Boca Raton (Fla.) Fire Department, where tests on some 30 firefighters who wear the same type of pants as Charleston firefighters detected high levels of antimony, a metallic chemical element that can cause health problems after long exposures.

At least 50 Boca Raton firefighters showed symptoms of heavy-metal poisoning that their union thinks are linked to the flame retardant in the pants, according to a report in Saturday's Palm Beach Post. Boca Raton firefighters wore the pants as part of their uniforms for more than 15 years. But Boca Raton officials agreed in October to replace the pants with a cotton brand after facing pressure from the firefighters union. Charleston Fire Chief Thomas Carr Jr. said he began looking into the issue Monday after reading about the concerns in Florida.

"Certainly it's concerning. It does seem to be the same pants we wear. If it's a legitimate issue, we will need to do something about it," he said.

But there's not much the department can do until it receives some guidance from the uniform's manufacturer or federal health officials, Carr said.

The manufacturer of the Flying Cross FireWear pants, Fechheimer Brothers, did not respond to calls seeking comment Monday. The Cincinnati-based company told the Palm Beach Post that it thinks the Boca Raton department is the first to raise concerns about the pants.

"However, since the quality of our products and the safety of our customers are our top priorities, we have contacted the manufacturer that supplies the FireWear fabric to our company and others to gain a greater understanding of the concerns being raised," Fred Heldman, the company's senior vice president, told the Florida paper.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the division of the CDC looking into the health concerns, hopes to determine whether Boca Raton firefighters "are exposed to antimony by wearing uniform pants that contain antimony trioxide as a flame retardant," public affairs specialist Fred Blosser said.

The pants at issue are worn by firefighters around their station houses and underneath their protective gear at fire scenes.

Jeffrey Stull is an expert on protective clothing who analyzed the remnants of the uniforms worn by the nine Charleston firefighters who perished at last year's Sofa Super Store blaze. He said antimony has been in common use in firefighter uniforms for a decade or more.

But laundering and regular use of the treated pants can cause the chemical to "leach out" over time, Stull said. He added that inhalation is the primary concern with antimony but absorption through the skin also can cause health problems if it occurs over a long enough period.

Long-term exposure to antimony can cause eye irritation, lung problems, stomach pain, diarrhea, vomiting, ulcers and other ailments, according to the CDC. Boca Raton firefighters have reported a variety of health issues over the years, including cancer, numbness and tingling in their hands and feet, headaches and rashes.

A Charleston Fire Department committee spent weeks last year studying different types of uniforms to replace the polyester type, which did not meet national guidelines. The group eventually selected fire-retardant pants and T-shirts as their station uniform. The city used a $230,000 donation from local businessman Gene Reed to pay for the new uniforms.

Bill Haigler, an engineer at the Fire Department's Cainhoy station and president of the Charleston firefighters' union, said he's been pleased with the performance of the uniforms since they were ordered last year.

"I've not heard any complaints," Haigler said. "Since we've just been made aware of the apparent issue, we have to wait and see what comes of the investigation."


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