Kevin O’Connor explains why firefighters can’t ignore the dangers posed by certain building materials—and the lobbyists pushing for them.

When firefighters think of politics and advocacy, they envision Congressional debates on fire service grant programs, training, regulations, or battles at the state and local levels on budgeting, funding priorities, and staffing. They don’t realize that a deeper and very malicious threat exists at every level of government.

Most don’t understand that there are powerful corporate interests employing teams of lobbyists to promote the continued use and expansion of products that are carcinogenic and lethal to firefighters and ordinary citizens alike. These attacks are every bit as important to our industry and the long-term health and safety of our members as more traditional fire service issues.

Much has been written about the toxic flame-retardant industry and its unscrupulous attempts to continue to lace upholstered furniture with pounds of cancer-causing compounds. These products are championed by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), which touts their benefits while masking the ominous dangers. They prowl the halls of legislative bodies, make their voices heard before the Consumer Product Safety Commission, EPA and other bodies, and actively participate at NFPA and ICC code hearings. Despite well-crafted policy statements and pledges to ensure life safety, protect the environment and minimize health risks, their agenda is product protection, market share and profits.

The ACC and the petroleum industry partner in promoting the expanded use of plastics. Plastic is a petroleum-based product. Most understand the environmental challenges that plastics produce for recycling and litter, but how do plastics impact the occupational health of firefighters?

The most prevalent plastic used in furnishings and plastic piping is PVC (polyvinyl chloride), which poses serious health risks. Through off-gassing and “leaching,” it emits toxins, mercury and phthalates, and under combustion or when heated, PVC becomes a true killer, releasing carcinogenic dioxins.

The plastics industry promotes PVC as a cheaper alternative to metal piping for various plumbing needs. Many jurisdictions have building codes that prohibit PVC piping in non-residential occupancies and in buildings over a certain height. These safety regulations should not only be preserved, but expanded.

The use of plastic piping also increases the dangers of fire spread. Unlike metal piping, during installation, plastic piping is simply “punched” through a wall. Because it’s combustible, more complicated fire-stopping gaskets and products need to be utilized to protect the openings. While these fire-stopping systems are a code requirement, they are rarely inspected properly, and in many jurisdictions, installers aren’t even required to have any training or certification.

With America’s aging infrastructure, there are 1.5 million miles of underground pipes to move our water supply. The overwhelming majority of these systems are made of ductile and plastic piping. The petroleum and plastics lobby is aggressively trying to supplant metal with PVC.

After the recent Santa Rosa fire, one of the largest in California history, residents reported a foul smell in their water supply. An investigation determined that the underground PVC piping was damaged by the fire and began leaching. Plastic, unlike cast iron, is permeable and prone to seepage and leaching. Scientists discovered that the pipes had emitted benzene, a carcinogen and petrochemical used in HDPE plastic pipes.

In a tale of two cities, Flint, MI, is replacing their troubled water system with copper piping for its durability, environmental safety and to avoid the health concerns associated with plastic. In neighboring Burton, the city chose to use PVC for its water supply. Why? Whether it’s building a home or addressing a major infrastructure project, the answer is very simple: cost. For the plastics industry and those seeking to cut costs, short-term financial benefits trump life safety, the environment, sustainability and durability.

This is no accident. The American City and County Exchange—an organization funded largely by the billionaire Koch brothers, industry trade groups and corporations—have developed model legislation to make it easier for plastics to gain further market share.

These aren’t sexy topics and certainly are not the foremost thoughts on the minds of firefighters, but we cannot be complacent when it comes to the code provisions that restrict or expand the use of plastics. Regardless of whether we find these topics interesting, they are our problem and they dramatically impact our safety and the long-term health of America’s Bravest.