The smoke firefighters are up against is more toxic than ever, according to an expert with the University of Notre Dame.

Graham Peaslee is a physics professor at Notre Dame. Peaslee has a lot of experience with PFAS, a group of manufactured chemicals used in everyday products that do not degrade easily.

“It’s in consumer products; it’s in the firefighting foam. And firefighting foam turns out to be one of the greatest sources of this chemical in the environment,” said Peaslee.

Peaslee was shocked to find the chemical was closer to home than originally thought.

He was tipped off by a firefighter’s spouse about a concern regarding PFAS being in their gear.

After testing, Peaslee found the chemical was used in making the gear. He also found the chemical in the fire station, having fallen off worn gear.

Peaslee published a paper on his findings in 2020, and the International Association of Fire Fighters changed its rules in 2022.

Within 10 years, the entire industry will have PFAS-free fabric, with the South Bend Fire Department getting its new gear by the end of this year.

Knowledge of these health concerns has led the South Bend Fire Department to become more cautious.

New safety measures include changing clothes after a fire, taking an immediate shower, leaving the breathing apparatus on while working a scene, and increasing cancer screenings and health checks.

Suzie Krill, with the South Bend Fire Department said the department takes the issue very seriously.

“We work 24-hour shifts. So, we eat, sleep, train,” said Krill. “We see kids grow up; we see parents die; we see children die; we see horrific things at work even. But we’re a family. And you’ve lost a family member when someone passes.”

Krill hopes the industry continues to become safer, because it’s a job that needs to be done.

“We love what we do,” said Krill.

Peaslee said Indiana is the first state to buy back ‘bad’ firefighting foam.

He says the education, awareness and reduction of exposures are improving and hopes these changes will show results in the coming years.