September 10, 2017

A chemical ban to protect the everyday heroes in our fire departments by Sen. Bill Diamond

First responders - such as police officers, firefighters and paramedics - have a huge responsibility in our society. They are trained and work diligently to rush toward danger, not away from it, to protect families from disaster. These professionals are rightly regarded as heroes for the way they put their own safety on the line to save others in the face of deadly fire or violent criminals. 

Society rightly lauds these brave men and women, but they deserve more than our words of praise. 

They deserve the security of knowing that they aren’t being put into danger unnecessarily, and that when they suffer injury on the job, they will not be left to fall through the cracks. 

This year, the Legislature passed several laws to protect first responders from needless danger, including a ban on chemical products that have directly increased the cancer risk faced by firefighters. Today, cancer - not fire - is the most common cause of death among firefighters. It’s no surprise, given the dangers of smoke, but ironically, evidence suggests the largest culprits in cancer rates among firefighters are flame-retardant chemicals - compounds placed in furniture and other household products.

Banning flame-retardant chemicals to increase firefighter safety seems counterintuitive at first. After all, the name implies that these chemicals would slow or even stall fire from spreading, limiting the damage and the potential injury or death caused by house fires. 

But what we learned is that there’s more to these chemicals than the name implies. First, these compounds are proven time and again not to significantly reduce the speed at which a house fire spreads. At the same time, they are consistently proven to make fires more dangerous because when they do burn, they become toxic, cancer-causing agents. These dangerous compounds stick to firefighting equipment and are not easily removed in regular washing or maintenance. So they continue to affect firefighters and other first responders long after the original fire has been extinguished. 

For all these reasons, 200 environmental health experts have issued a report on these flame-retardant chemicals, in which they said the compounds “can increase fire toxicity, but their overall benefit in improving fire safety has not been proven.”

Maine’s new law proactively protects our firefighters from increased risk for cancer. That’s why it was supported not only by scientists, but by firefighters themselves. It builds on previous work in the Legislature to protect firefighters, including a law I sponsored last year that guaranteed fire investigators in the State Fire Marshal’s office were given the same workers compensation protections as local firefighters - correcting a longtime error in Maine’s statutes. 

Firefighting will always be an inherently risky endeavor. But we can reduce the risk with sensible, evidence-based laws. This chemical ban will save lives, and I’m proud to have voted for it. 

As always, feel free to contact me at or (207) 287-1515, with any questions or concerns about this or any other important issue facing our state.

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