Among the many things firefighters learn in the field is that plastic burns hot and fast. It is a combustible material and releases toxic smoke and gases when burned.
When fighting fires, we face major health risks due to inhaling these toxic fumes. In large part, because it can make our jobs harder and more dangerous in the event of a fire, cities like New York and San Francisco actually prohibit the use of plastic piping in buildings with higher fire risk, like what we find in many high-rise apartment complexes.
A 2019 International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) statement highlighted that plastic piping is a dangerous material in construction that causes airborne and waterborne contamination. Additionally, the IAFF notes that gasses released from plastics can cause long-term health risks to workers exposed to these products.
Between those health concerns for first responders and the environmental issues giving rise to bans being put into place to reduce plastic waste from bags and straws, it is no wonder that plastic manufacturers are feeling pressure to change their public image.
The industry has undertaken a new campaign to rebrand their products and has worked to support several pieces of legislation in Congress that essentially boil down to the government picking winners and losers in the materials used in infrastructure projects.
Who are the losers? My firefighting colleagues, who will end up facing more plastic when they respond to a call.
If the plastics industry is successful, it would inject plastic into new buildings, water pipes that carry clean drinking water and water we use to put out fires, and even our bridges and roads. As a firefighter, I can tell you that littering America’s infrastructure projects with more plastic would be extremely hazardous to firefighter safety and would make it harder to combat large fires.
The failure of plastic infrastructure is already being felt in places such as California.
In the aftermath of the 2018 Camp Fire, residents and town officials in Paradise, California, discovered that their drinking water supply was contaminated by the cancerous chemical benzene. Not only did the fire ruin the lives of so many, but the town is still struggling to recover — some wondering if it ever will — due in part to the lack of drinking water that’s available. According to Dr. Andrew Whelton, a Purdue University environmental engineer who has been assisting Paradise Irrigation District, and his colleague Dr. Caitlin Proctor, the contamination likely came from “a combination of fumes being sucked into water pipes when the system pressure dropped, and plastics decomposing in place.”
I am baffled that there are some in our government who believe that the answer to the plastic crisis would be “more plastic.”
There is already enough plastic in our daily lives. As the plastic industry continues to struggle answering questions about the chemicals in their materials, it’s no wonder as to why so many business leaders and companies across the country are trying to move away from plastic use.
Firefighters have a dangerous job. We run toward the flames. Despite the advanced technology of breathing apparatus, we still risk inhaling toxins and noxious fumes at building and structure fires. Our colleagues out West who combat wildfires do so at times without similar protective gear because they are spending days and sometimes weeks on the lines.
I implore Congress on behalf of all of my colleagues: Please do not to make our jobs more deadly by forcing more plastic into infrastructure projects by giving the plastics industry a handout from Uncle Sam.
• Kevin O’Connor is a past Chair of the Congressional Fire Service Institute and a former firefighter/EMT in Baltimore County.