Give Toxics the Boot


fireman helmetEarlier this year, firefighters in Augusta, Maine joined together at the Augusta firehouse to bring attention to the need for stricter regulations on flame retardants and other toxic chemicals that firefighters believe are causing cancer and other diseases. Firefighting often exposes those battling the fire to a toxic blend of burning chemicals including dioxins, furans, and formaldehyde. Many of these chemicals are additives to everything from clothing to furniture to home materials that have been treated in an attempt to retard flames. However an investigation completed by the Chicago Tribune reveals that these additives do very little to protect against a fire. 

Toxic flame retardant chemicals, many linked to cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities and other serious illnesses are found in common consumer products ranging from plastics and building materials to toys and furniture. When flame-retardant furniture and plastics are broken done by fire, these products exponentially expose firefighters to their compounds. Chemicals may be attached to their skin, clothing and gear. Much like asbestos exposure decades before, these chemicals are so potent they may create harmful exposure for other workers or family members who come in contact with this residue.   Adverse effects from contact are typically not immediate. Many of these chemical bio-accumulate (build up) in a firefighter’s body, creating a deadly condition years after the exposure.  The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health completed a study of 30,000 firefighters and found higher rates of prostate cancer, kidney cancer, and multiple myeloma in its surveyed group.

While Maine has taken some steps to make sure children’s products are free from toxic chemicals, more can be done. 

It’s time we step up our action to reject the accepted use of chemical flame retardants. They are not just limited in their effectiveness in actually preventing fires, but their potential contribution to the development of cancer, not only in firefighters, but also to all who are exposed, should be a concern to us all. For more information, go to

About the author: Suzanne L. Johnson is an attorney and partner at McTeague Higbee. She can be reached at 207-725-5581 or at


Maine at Work

About Maine at Work

Karen Bilodeau and Ben Grant are attorneys at the workers' rights law firm McTeague Higbee. With experience in both state and federal courts including national litigation, they have particular prominence in labor and employment litigation, workers' compensation, and construction accidents. They use this blog to educate Mainers about their workers' and individual rights in a number of different legal matters. For more information, go to