State Rep. Maureen Bauer, D-South Bend (photo provided)

Each January, we honor Fire Fighter Cancer Awareness Month. Firefighter occupational cancer is the leading cause of line-of-duty death in the fire service. While there are certain inherent risks involved in a career as a first responder – risking your own health while using the very tools intended to keep firefighters and our communities safe should not be one of them.

Unfortunately, harmful chemicals known as PFAS, exist in both the aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) that has been used to fight fires for decades, and in the very personal protective gear designed to keep firefighters safe. As we have learned more about the harmful impact of these toxic, man-made chemicals – we act. Which is why in 2020, based on what we now know about the impacts these chemicals cause to both human health and the environment, the Indiana General Assembly banned the use of fire fighting foam containing PFAS for training purposes.

It is why our Governor and Department of Homeland Security has implemented a Foam Collection Program for local fire departments across the state to help reduce the risk of exposure.

It is why I, as State Representative in the Indiana General Assembly, have introduced legislation to enact a pilot blood testing program for past and current Hoosier firefighters to measure their PFAS levels.

These pollutants have been linked to a number of health issues including: increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer, increased cholesterol levels, decreased fertility, increased thyroid disease, increased risk of high blood pressure or preeclampsia in pregnancy, and decreased birth weight in infants.

The loss of two of South Bend Fire Department’s very own service members in 2019, each to a rare form of brain cancer at the young ages of 41 and 55, has prompted me to look intently into what we can do to ensure working environments remain safe, even if the very nature of the job requires you to run into danger when others run out.

By collecting data on the levels of exposure of PFAS in firefighters, we are providing one thing we don’t have – data for individuals to know if they have elevated risk to warrant future health concerns. As we know, early detection is key to beating cancer. This tool will allow firefighters to gain knowledge about their own exposure level to these chemicals, and offer information necessary to accessing early, preventative care.

The bill has passed out of the House Veterans Affairs and Public Safety Committee by a vote of 12-0, and the House Committee on Ways and Means by a vote of 23-0, and the bill heads to the full House for second reading.

By raising awareness on this issue, it is my hope that we will generate support for this legislation, encourage departmental change to reduce exposure, and promote industry innovation. 

Committee testimony from South Bend local firefighters stated that while it may be too late to prevent a cancer diagnosis for them, this legislation is important to protect the next generation of firemen and women. It is my belief that it is all our responsibility to ensure that residents of Indiana are afforded safe working environments.

The community remains grateful to the brave men and women who continue to serve and protect our community. In memory of all of those who have fallen in the line of duty to occupational cancer, we commit ourselves to protecting those who protect and serve us. The health of all our communities depends on it.

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