Unveiling the Toxicity Behind Nomex Fabric and how Merino (Wool) has Been Revived to Save the Fire Service

“Merino, Glen Orkney, Awatere, Marlborough, New Zealand” by In Memoriam: PhillipC is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Over the past few years, Fire Department PPE and station wear has undergone a litany of independent scientific tests. These tests have uncovered the toxicity of this fabric on the human body. From the tireless work of Dr. Graham Peaslee, Diane and Lt. Paul Cotter, Neil and Genna McMillan, Chief Sean Mitchell, Jim Burneka, Kevin Ferrara, and Kyla Bennett, we know that firefighter turnouts are some of the most heavily fluorinated textiles known to man. Meaning it contains PFAS. So much, the outer shell was more than 2% fluorine by weight. The moisture barrier was a whopping 30% fluorine by weight.

Nomex Station Wear

What hasn’t been discussed as much is Nomex Station Wear, and it’s just as toxic. I had my Nomex station wear tested. In June 2021, Dr. Graham Peaslee notified us that the three samples I sent from 2014–2021 did not contain PFAS. However, it had Brominated FR and from DuPont’s literature, Benzene. Coincidentally, it appears we won the chemical cocktail lottery. Brominated FR and Benzene mirror the exact effects of PFAS on the human body. Above is an excerpt from Dupont’s own Nomex Fiber Technical Guide. Under less severe conditions, Nomex degrades slowly. Keep in mind, less severe conditions constitute sunlight. In return, the off-gassing of these chemicals rewards your body with the dirty half dozen. The star of the show is Benzene. Benzene is a known human carcinogen for all routes of exposure, according to the EPA. Outside of Benzenes carcinogenic effects, cancer, endocrine disorders, chromosomal mutations, and infertility. Benzene also delivers a side of death for high levels of exposure.

Brominated Flame Retardants banned in the U.S since 2004 have also, somehow, remained in firefighter station wear. Brominated FR has a wide array of health effects on the human body. Exposure to these PBDEs has been associated with neurological problems, endocrine disruption, cancer, and infertility. Like PFAS, they also remain persistent in the environment. Brominated FR is so persistent that newborns born today will have Brominated FR in their bodies at birth.

Functionality

This little gem is the exact user instruction, safety, and training guide brought to you by Lion. This document was attached to every brand-new pair of Nomex pants. Yes, it is from 2014.

Recently, I subjected myself to listening to a webinar that discussed myths and conceptions of station wear. During the presentation, I found it ironic that the manufacturer rep consistently stated that “we must view our station wear as the first layer of PPE or base layer PPE.” In 2014, it was work clothing, not PPE. Trust me; it gets better.

Thanks to Lion, I now know that I can’t store my Nomex pants and shirts in direct sunlight because it will damage the very fabric I’m supposed to wear in direct sunlight, WTF? I almost forgot; the sunlight damage takes place in 3 days. So, you can only wear Nomex during the night.

So, Lion believes in cross-contamination except when it has to do with gray water? Luckily for the citizens across the U.S., when they open their tap, they’ll get a nice cup of cool refreshing water loaded with chemicals your water treatment plant doesn’t or can’t filter out.

Hang dry only at night; check!

I’m positive, at this point, we all understand Nomex will only last four years if it’s worn at night. When corporations represent 1/3 of the NPFA panel in 1975 and 1971, they throw money around to ensure they are the only voting members. In addition, I have no idea how this chemical-laced conglomerate of inadequacy had ever passed the eye test. Nomex is one of the hottest fabrics I have ever worn. If you question this statement, ask a NASCAR driver. My body on a 70-degree day with low humidity feels Swampy. In the summer, we never stop sweating and often comparing who changed clothes the most. Nomex station wear, at a minimum, should be considered a massive failure. In reality, these corporations need to be legally held accountable for one of the worst environmental disasters and toxic exposures in the history of humankind.

Merino (Wool)

Wool, in general, has a somewhat complicated history in the fire service. All of which is undeserving. Many of our seasoned firefighters around the country have stories of wool being used in the ’70s and ’80s. Magically, sometime in the ’80s, wool disappeared. Its replacement, we all know, was the famed and toxic fabric known as Nomex. Believe it or not, wool was approved until the NFPA created a test they knew the fabric couldn’t pass, the thermal shrinkage test. The thermal shrinkage test, by all accounts, is obsolete.

Above is the moment when the NFPA gave up on the wool. Listed is the NFPA 1975 standard that specifically addresses wool. At the time, (NFPA 1999 ed.) garments had to be 100% wool, and we all know what happens when we put wool in the dryer and set it on high. Simply, you get baby clothes. So, while wool doesn’t appear to have been completely removed, it seems obsolete. Today that isn’t the case. Wool, specifically Merino wool, performs better or equal to Nomex on all areas of thermo-resistance and performance. Merino blows all known fabric out of the water with its ability to assist the wearer in thermo-regulation. Those of us that enjoy hiking and outdoor sports can attest to the superior properties of Merino. Recently, my wife and I completed the Virginia Triple Crown. Right in the middle of a hot Virginia summer. The hike was over 35-miles, and we gained almost 9,000 feet of elevation. It was brutal but breathtaking. We wore Merino throughout. Merino socks kept our feet in good condition and our bodies cool in 90 plus degree heat.

In firefighting applications, wool’s intrinsic qualities are natural, superior, and don’t require chemicals. Wool is naturally flame resistant due to its chemical structure. Wool has a high nitrogen content and high moisture content. This means the fiber only ignites at temperatures between 570C-600C (1058F — 1112F), and even then, wool doesn’t melt. Wool has a low heat release rate, self-extinguishes, and produces much less toxic smoke and gasses during combustion. If you are still not convinced, Merino has a higher UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) than all known synthetics across the entire UV light spectrum. Merino has natural wicking properties. The hydrophobic exterior and hydrophilic interior absorb moisture from the body while releasing a small amount of heat that prevents chilling of the skin. Lastly, it is sustainable, non-toxic, natural, and biodegradable (Rodgers, 2013).

Below are the contenders for the test.

Below, shows how the subjects were monitored.

The results from the experiment are listed below. Merino is the clear winner.

Care

UK Fire, May 2018 pg.22

Contrary to popular belief, Merino is easy to care for and maintain. The Merino fabric is environmentally conscious, bio-degradable, doesn’t need chemicals, and is sustainable. Merino is washed using cold water, which reduces energy usage. Drying Merino can occur with setting the dryer to tumble on low or hang drying outside. Which further reduces energy costs. It is important to note; you can dry Merino outside as opposed to Nomex as Merino is not affected by the sun.

UK Fire, May 2018 pg.22

With a price point comparable to Nomex station wear, it is unknown why we have moved on from wool. Merino performs better or equal in every possible category used by the NFPA 1975 performance test. So, what happened? I imagine that if sheep could vote on the NFPA board for 1975, the story would have been different. Instead, we have been left with greedy corporate reps that make up 1/3 of all NFPA boards, including NFPA 1971 and 1975. Essentially, these non-purveyors of truth “corporate reps” have positioned themselves to create the very rules their companies must follow, which is a conflict of interest at a minimum. Furthermore, to say this diminishes any credibility of the NFPA is an understatement. At this point, it seems as though the corporate insurrection of another overwatch agency has been infiltrated. Just ask the EPA how that’s going for them.

Husband, Author, Firefighter, Advocate Against PFAS