Jay Fleming is a booming Boston firefighter who has climbed the ranks since 1978. He has two engineering degrees, a no-nonsense manner and thick accent.
For the last seven years, he has applied his considerable wit to banning flame retardant chemicals in Massachusetts, which might sound counterintuitive to those not steeped in the byzantine logic of American chemical regulation.
“Firefighters are like the canary in the mine,” said Fleming. “If there is a problem with these chemicals, we’re going to get it,” said Fleming. “We’re exposed to the highest level.”
Fleming has watched colleagues die of cancer since he started in the department. His father was also a firefighter. He died of lung cancer in an era when few firefighters wore masks, let alone the rebreathers available today.
But now, that diagnosis feels less exotic than news his peers get – findings of kidney, bladder and thyroid cancers. The legislator who once carried the bill to ban fire retardants, former firefighter and senator Ken Donnelly, himself died of brain cancer at just 66. Fleming blames flame retardants, some of which have already been designated as likely to cause cancer and which have been found to disrupt the endocrine system, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Already, new generations of the products have been introduced since concerns were first raised about their safety, effects on the human body and persistence in the environment.
“When they started to transition to this plastic stuff [in the home], it just produced smoke that was a lot more irritating,” said Fleming. Firefighters never said to “add flame retardants, they just said address the plastics problem, because it’s killing us [from the smoke while fighting fires] … The solution to adding chemicals to the furniture was to add more chemicals to the furniture.”