Fire extinguishing chemicals are “riskier” for firefighters than actual fires? Not according to science
A new paper uses emotional words like “chemicals forever” and sketchy correlations to claim that fire is not what firefighters should be concerned about when the alarm goes off, but chemicals made by Evil Corporations that are they should fear.
Firefighters get angry when they see it, and they should be. It endangers your life. This is not junk science, this is not science at all.
Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) are compounds that have been used in too many useful and safe (and safety) products since the 1940s in order to count them. In the eternal search for new things to raise and sue for money, environmental advocates have increasingly targeted them. A small state like Vermont, a popular target of the anti-science fringe group, even proposed a ban on perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl in ski wax.
Do you want huge amounts of ski wax in your blood? No. Can you find traces of ski wax “chemicals” in your blood and water and in many other places? Yes.
It’s also irrelevant. We can literally see all in all at this point, as long as you accept parts per quadrillion as reasonable. Unless it’s not. It infuriates scientists when activists do, for it is homeopathic belief in mysticism to claim that traces of anything are killing us. It should also annoy the public because our tax dollars pay for this nonsense.
In a post-pandemic world where even the left-wing people have re-embraced science like cleaning products and vaccines, it is good to be skeptical of claims about PFAS for two reasons. Math and money.
You can’t trust the math – statistics in this case – in this new claim because it has become common for activists to create a belief, wrap it up in meaningless data, and pay someone to publish it in a magazine. Every diary. Including a company that made it onto the list of “predatory” publications for good reason. The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health is a pay-to-publish imprint of the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, which featured prominently on Beall’s list of predatory publishers before it was due to pressure on his University of … wait for it … multidisciplinary institute for digital publishing.
MDPI is the same company that took money from fringe conspiracy theorist Stephanie Seneff to publish her paper claiming that a herbicide causes autism, obesity, cancer, multiple sclerosis, and everything else – with no evidence to provide. The company is known for spamming every email it can find (nearly 900,000, from what hackers got during a data breach), requesting articles to post when you have money and for those the peer review consists exclusively of formatting carried out in China. (1)
If you read the paper you can see that it has only been peer-reviewed, just as an astrologer might peer review a paper claiming a Sagittarius would be rather skeptical. They are believers, not critics, which is the opposite of what peer review is supposed to achieve. Real peer reviews ask questions any smart person would ask. Are firefighters dying of more heart attacks than the average? The answer is yes, and the Fire Fighter Cancer Cohort Study shows it. Do They Get More Cancer Than the Average Person? Yes.
Both are due to two things: One is age. The longer you live, the more likely it is to die from a heart attack or cancer. Age is the greatest risk factor for almost all mortality. Most firefighters are fit so they actually live longer outside of an accident at work. (2) The second is smoke. Smoking is the world’s biggest lifestyle killer. There is no debate about that. Firefighters inhale more smoke than non-smokers despite good protection. This can lead to cancer. (3)
Despite a flimsy basis, the paper claims statistical significance that is meaningless. And yet the authors do not find a single restriction in their paper. I can’t remember the last time I read an article claiming to be epidemiology that didn’t address the limitations of its methodology.
Statistical significance sounds authoritative to many journalists, but it is so easy to create instead that the American Statistical Association wants people with rudimentary knowledge of the field, such as social psychologists and epidemiologists, to stop using it. It makes statistics look bad. I was a signatory to the Retired Statistical Significance Paper in Nature. Because statistical significance needs to be used correctly or not at all, and 9,000 epidemiological papers misuse it every year. (2)
Including this. Their claim came from a survey of 135 firefighters in a small part of New Jersey, and then they correlated those questionnaire results to a table of nine PFAS chemicals. Perfluorododecanoic acid and perfluorodecanoic acid were higher in volunteer firefighters.
So these chemicals put you at risk? No, they are not poisonous unless someone puts a tube into the stomach of rats via an overdose. At such tiny levels – 80 more claims of almost nothing shows they are not interested in the actual relative risk – they would have gotten it from using nonstick cookware in their home on a daily basis. The only reason diseases are associated with chemicals in foam is because they can be found in anything with 4,000 different PFAS chemicals. That means you can link chemicals in the foam to cancer as easily as I can link organic foods to lower fertility in men.
Don’t want to ban chemicals and make lawyers rich? Why do you hate firefighters?
That is what this paper is really trying to achieve. It’s certainly not about the public health of a small group of volunteer firefighters in a small part of New Jersey. This is such an oddly thin piece of data that even Environmental Health Perspectives might not have peer-reviewed.
(1) Even if the journal were credible, there is plenty of room for skepticism from scientists. Far too many food and chemical activist epidemiologists use statistical manipulation to claim with “statistical significance” that a chemical is harmful without using any science. I once sent a staff member to “debate” whether trace chemicals found in a pizza box make more people obese than they eat the pizza. I put the debate in quotation marks because no one could seriously be found to make the “for” argument – even though it was featured in progressive media outlets like Mother Jones and the Guardian – so a pleasant guy took off the coat just to get it could give a conversation.
If an epidemiological paper is provocative enough to appear in the Guardian, which is basically a successful Mother Jones except in England, the rule of thumb for scientists is that it is not science.
(2) They have risky jobs, so the chance of an accident at work is higher than someone who works at Kinkos, but that has nothing to do with chemicals.
(3) The discovery of the link between smoking and all kinds of diseases gave epidemiology an aura of credibility, which was then exploited by activists in the food (miracle vegetables! Increased mortality!) And chemistry (endocrine disorders! Increased mortality!) Fields. A field that was once so conservative that it refused to accept that there was any hereditary aspect of cancer is now publishing all of the data dredged up to p> .05. And COVID-19 means a new wave of credibility for a field so messed up that insiders wondered if it should be abandoned – and that means a new wave of shady claims about car seats, breast milk and Manwich cans. Everything without any biological plausibility.