Episode 51 finds us speaking with Elijah Yetter-Bowman founder of Ethereal Films. Elijah joined me to discuss their new film entitled “Burned”. “Burned” is a powerful expose on the use of PFAS or Forever Chemicals in our turnout gear. Forever chemicals are everywhere as you’ll hear in our conversation. However, the levels of concentration in items meant to protect us is astounding and disturbing.
Elijah’s work along with others in the film. Hopes to bring increased attention and further the necessary changes. I think the simplest way to give a proper introduction is to read Elijah’s bio from the Ethereal Films website.
“Award-winning filmmaker, Elijah Yetter Bowman. They them grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, as a curious problem solver.They attended UNC chapel hill originally to pursue a path in healthcare. Recognizing the lack of creative communication for complex issues, they found it a theorial films to help solve dire problems through storytelling and impact campaigns. They received numerous awards, including the Southern exposure film festival in 2021. And dubbed the Kentucky Colonel by governor Beshear in 2022 for their efforts on PFS awareness.Their work bridges gaps between many disciplines, including a polymer chemistry. Advising and North Carolina attorney general and expert consulting.”
Stack: Welcome to another episode of the things we all carry. Episode 51 finds us speaking with Elijah Yetter-Bowman founder of a theorial films. Elijah joined me to discuss their new film entitled “Burned”. “Burned” is a powerful expose on the use of PFAS or Forever Chemicals in our turnout gear. Forever chemicals are everywhere as you’ll hear in our conversation. However, the levels of concentration in items meant to protect us is astounding and disturbing.
Elijah’s work along with others in the film. Hopes to bring increased attention and further the necessary changes. I think the simplest way to give a proper introduction is to read Elijah’s bio from the theory of films, a website. And I quote. Award-winning filmmaker, Elijah Yetter Bowman. They them grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, as a curious problem solver.
They attended UNC chapel hill originally to pursue a path in healthcare. Recognizing the lack of creative communication for complex issues, they found it a theorial films to help solve dire problems through storytelling and impact campaigns. They received numerous awards, including the Southern exposure film festival in 2021. And dubbed the Kentucky Colonel by governor Beshear in 2022 for their efforts on PFS awareness.
Their work bridges gaps between many disciplines, including a polymer chemistry. Advising and North Carolina attorney general and expert consulting.
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Stack: Today I’ve got Elijah joining me. Elijah is the director of the movie Burned, and I’m gonna let him introduce himself and give us a brief background on his history and where he’s, where he came from, where he is now, and then we’ll get into the movie a little bit.
How are you doing? .
Elijah: So much better now that I’m about two weeks out from getting over Covid .
Stack: I can imagine. I can imagine you’re better now. Yeah.
Elijah: Yeah. I’m a pretty active person and so when when you get sick and it knocks you out, it’s just oh wow.
Stack: And did you get that around, around the time of the premiere?
Cuz I know we were set to record the day after the premiere and you got hung up with air travel. I know.
Elijah: I absolutely got it from the premiere. There’s no doubt in my mind. I You get thousands of people gathered in Las Vegas you’re bound to catch something. I will say not to make light of, catching an illness cuz that sucked, but I would’ve changed nothing about this premiere.
I think getting to share this story firsthand with, I think we had about 2300 professional firefighters who got to see this phone for the first time, all in person, and it was. Absolutely a surreal experience.
Stack: That’s awesome. I know that I followed Diane on social media and I saw her kind of her travels out there and some of what she was doing that during the premiere and it looked it looked like it was a good time.
It was a success, to say the least. Yeah.
Elijah: Which I think. What was fascinating cuz there was a lot of, a lot of us were wondering how it was gonna go over. There was concerns, of course. This was a union event and I won’t sugarcoat it. There are some of the moments that are revealed in the film about how previous administration for the union, for the I F F.
We’re not doing a good job at dealing with this issue. In fact, there was some really bad acting and that was, discussed in the film. And there was a concern that at this premiere we might have, some of the folks who worked with those previous leaders storm out. That was a genuine concern.
And that didn’t happen at all. Every single person sat in that room and said, oh my goodness, this is the truth. And we need to move forward and to deal with this. So it was definitely surreal and I think a beautiful transition moment for the fire service at large.
Stack: So before we get into the movie let’s talk about you a little bit. Where’d you grow up? What was life like and what are you doing? What are you doing with your life?
Elijah: Yeah. Great to, to reframe us. I will say, I’m a person in many interests. I like to wear a lot of hats. My academic background is in.
Sort of chemistry and human health sciences. I went to school in UNC Chapel Hill North Carolina, which is still where I live. Actually I live fairly close to Chapel Hill still. And we’ve run Ethereal Films, which is the production studio that I founded about five years ago at this point, to tell stories that have significant social impact and.
just burned. The purpose of that film is to essentially to educate as many people in the fire service or part of the fire community as possible to actually affect positive change. Cuz the issue that’s discussed in the film it’s still an ongoing issue. It’s not solved in the purpose of the film is to help be a vehicle for that change.
But my background was originally on a clearcut medical path. Had plans for graduate school to roll into medical program because of experiences that affected me when I was growing up. I have two amazing parents and One of whom my mother dedicated her life to public health.
And I’ve got a lot of family members who are doctors and nurses. And so I’ve always been interested in how the human body works and how science can, create tools to make us healthier to, to fix bad problems. I’ve dealt with pretty bad disease in my family, including for my immediate parents.
And that was the personal philosophy of. Went to school for what I did. And it was interesting. The reason that burned exists now and the reason I’ve been deep diving for almost six years at this point, this topic of forever chemicals was because of something that happened when I was supposed to transition into my graduate studies which is that the town that I grew up which is a little beach town called Wilmington, North Carolina.
It was discovered really late that the drinking water that we were raised on that everybody in that area, which is about 300,000 people, is a conservative estimate was super contaminated with the, actually the same class of chemicals, forever. Chemicals, which is What I think is the best phrase to describe what are otherwise called pfas these are these same compounds that were discovered in turnout gear that the film examines. And speaking as a chemist, speaking as a person who’s working in a polymer lab . I don’t wanna get stuck on the science, but the word pfas is such a problematic word. And gosh, we could probably spend 10 minutes on that.
But that’s a little bit about me. And it’s been a circuitous path through life to now be working at an intersection between my academic background in research, in, in heavy science and how to meld that with storytelling to change things. .
Stack: So how did you get involved with Diane Cotter and this whole issue of PFAS and turnout gear?
Elijah: So it was about four years ago that while we were working on originally a documentary about, The contamination issue I described of my hometown. So this was an issue of drinking water, these same compounds, but in our drinking water. We started to connect with other advocates because the issue of pfa s well it’s very complex and it’s incredibly I will just say universal.
So the issue of contaminated drinking water from these compounds currently is estimated to impact every single body of water in the United States to a varying degree. Some places like my town are really bad. Some places are a little less bad, but unfortunately we’re learning that there’s no town.
Totally safe drinking water. And you might say, what does that have to do with turnout gear? There has been a huge uptick. In the academic world all the folks that research these compounds and what they do to people in trying to understand the big picture. And so they arrange a thing called the national PFA S Conference.
And the second one of these, which was back in I think 2018 Diane Carter. And actually Graham Peasley the physicist from Notre Dame were scheduled to essentially announce the first results of Graham’s work. For anyone that hasn’t seen the film Graham is the incredible scientist who tested the turnout gear when no one else would to answer the question.
Is this stuff in the. And and so it was an interesting faded meeting cuz we had been chatting on and off with the Cotters, of course we’re several states away. They’re up in the northeast. We’re down in North Carolina. And it was just an opportunity to finally see them if we went to this conference and talking to Graham, in person talking to the Cotters, we realized that they were on the verge really on the precipice of uncovering something.
Absolutely massive that no one really was willing to address. And that, and now many years later all of Diane’s work has been validated. She exposed really something that’s been happening since the 1970s and only now our folks really taking a look at it for what it truly. .
And you mentioned it it’s something that’s been around since, like you said, the 1970s. The studies have been out there since the eighties, if I’m not mistaken. Correct.
Elijah: Yeah. So it’s interesting. It’s a little hard to answer because in terms of the the harm that pfas to living people, to, to living organisms, that information dates all the way back.
de definitely the eighties, I think as early as the late sixties. And that sort of, those studies they’re not the same as the types that like health journals publish. These would be internal studies that the companies who manufacture these chemicals create, but they don’t necessarily release those studies.
The only reason we know about those studies is because. is basically legal pressures that have revealed those documents. So the information has existed but it had been intentionally withheld.
Stack: So there, there’s definitely some sense or some semblance of culpability in there. And that’s something that is touched on, but not exactly, you don’t exact, you don’t delve into it too much in the film, cuz I think the film is more about what it’s doing and how can we get past it.
As That’s exactly right. So let’s, if we, I got you here and you’ve got the, you’ve got the science background. What is, what are fluorinated chemicals? What is pfas?
Elijah: Okay. I love it. This is what I think about every single day. Quite frankly. , it’s a terrible acronym. Like I will be the first to tell you one of my hats is a chemist.
Chemists suck at naming things like we just absolutely suck. Technically it all. And I just wanna address this misconception right here because I run into it all the time. See people say, oh, pfas is bad. And it’s yes, PFAS is really bad. Must be a really bad chemical pfa. Is not a chemical.
Pfas is a family of at least 12,000 individual chemicals that all share a particular chemical structure. So really pfas is a way of describing a type of chemical. Off the bat, you’re like that’s confusing. Why is it sounds like it’s one thing, it’s not what it technically translates to.
And this is horrible. I expect no one to remember. This is per and poly floral AAL substances. What a mouthful.
Stack: That’s quite a mouthful. , . I’ll be, I’ll have to Google for the notes so
Elijah: I can translate that into slightly more understandable. Per and poly floral alcohol substance, that’s the pfas.
What it essentially means is that we’re describing the per and poly means, has some. Or has as many possible floral alcohol substance. Floral means fluorine. Alcohol means single bonded carbons. Substances just means it, compounds materials. So per and polyphoral alcohol substances means it has some amount of floring bonded to carbons, or it has as many possible floor bonded to carbons.
So a better way to describe it is if, and I don’t expect all the listeners of this to be organic chemists, that’s fine. You shouldn’t have to be to understand what pfas are. If you were to look at a molecular structure of something and you were like, Hey, how do I tell if this is a pfa? S Essentially, if you see at least two fluorines that are bound to a carbon, That is technically a pfas.
You could have a hundred flooring bound to, 80 carbons. As long as you have at least two flooring bound to a carbon, it is technically a pfa s that, that is the simplest way of describing it. And if you don’t know a lot of chemistry, you might be like, great. Pretty much useless information to me.
I don’t know what that means. I just know that there’s some letters in the alphabet soup that I can use to ID this stuff. But the absolutely interesting unique and defining characteristic of a pfas is that carbon florian bond. It is. . Physically speaking, like in the realm of physics and thermodynamics, it is considered one of the strongest bonds that exists in the universe.
And this is the crux of why? I think forever chemical is a much better term. It’s a lot more descriptive because the carbon flooring bond. Being so strong is not naturally degraded in the environment. And this is why we call them forever chemicals because while we can manufacture them pretty fast if we just leave them in the environment, which is one of the things that happens, for instance, when turnout gear goes into a landfill those pfas are basically going to.
Transition through soil, through drinking water, through people for at least tens of thousands of years. So this is a variety of chemical that. Has literal tens of thousands of years of lifetime, which means as we continue to produce more of them, and I will just say the good news is a lot of places are halting production of these chemicals.
But historically as we’ve continued to produce more and more of these there’s nothing in nature that’s degrading them. And so they are a problem that doesn’t go away. So that is. I have so much I could say about pfas, but in terms of the nuts and bolts they. Organic compounds, which means they are carbon-based compounds that have at least two fluorines bound to them.
It is the carbon flooring bond that defines what they are as well as why they are that they behave in the ways that they do. And the reason they’re so important, not just the fact that they, persist forever. The real reason they’re so important to people to pay attention to is because the ways in which they can impact a living organism.
The varieties of effects that they can have on our health are. Absolutely profound. Like it isn’t just they’re associated with this one type of rare cancer. No. They are associated with so many different forms of health effects that we have sub classifications. They are carcinogenic in multiple ways.
They are also endocrine disrupting, so they will change the way that hormonal functions of your body work. They will also impact your something called epigenetic life outcomes, which means the exposure that you face to some pfas from wearing your turnout gear, for instance, may cause generational impacts, meaning that the likelihood of a disease for a child that you may have or even a grandchild is changed.
Because of exposures that you face now. Alright. I don’t wanna linger on the doom and gloom of it. Part of this discussion is about fixing
Stack: this and unfortunately the doom and the gloom is the reality. So as I understand it, then pfas is the umbrella, correct? Yes. That’s it. And the chemicals that, that we’re being ex exposed to through our gear fall under the umbrella of pfas.
That’s right. That’s so what’s, what particular chemicals then? Are we being exposed to through turnout? .
Elijah: So it’s a difficult thing to answer, like the, I think part of why it’s been such a slow process to from the scientific standpoint of, hey, how do you present to people who are exposed to these, this variety of chemical how do you give them the full data?
Like I know so many scientists that will, would rather spend an extra year or two or three, like really making sure they’re dotting all their T’s or crossing all their T’s, dotting all their I before they’re gonna share anything. That’s the analytical chemistry side of things. We actually show I think a few Basically stills of Graham Pasley’s research, which attempt to do that.
They attempt to quantify those specific pfas that were detectable in turnout gear. And it’s not completely universal. But I will say as. Someone who interacts with the toxicologist, with the epidemiologist, with all of the health science people. We are getting to a point with PFA s because of the way that health studies, the complexity that goes into them, and how much time and energy and money has to be spent to conduct them in a, in an accurate way.
The reason we need to look at PFAS as an umbrella is because there’s so much data on all of the specific health outcomes from a couple of them that have been very well known and very well researched. And I said I think a few minutes ago that pfas technically encompasses 12,000 chemicals.
Okay? So if it takes on average about 10, let’s say, let’s be conservative, we’ll say it takes 10 years. to study one compound in a robust epi epidemiological health study and give like a good estimate of the health effects. Okay? So if we have, it takes 10 years, let’s say it costs $10 million too, and there are 12,000 individual PFA s so we would need.
Way more years, , , and way more money than could possibly ever be allocated into research to determine exactly the specificity of harm for each individual pfas. But here’s the good news. We’ve got enough data on some PFA s that are very well studied and we have early data on some new pfas. So pfas that we’re only recently detecting.
Industry’s been making this stuff for a while. They just don’t like to tell us that we can start to say, okay, it seems basically all pfas until we can find otherwise are similarly associated with the same effects. Which means and this is, again, I’m just gonna push this idea of treating them as a class or a family of compounds, is because when Graham Peasley goes in and he specifically I.
Let’s say, I think 14 or so specific pfas were identified and quantified, so they found the concentrations in the gear. , some of those, four carbon or six carbon length, they’re 12 carbon length, maybe less studied, but the eight carbon length, they’re exceptionally well studied. And so from a chemistry perspective, there’s not a huge difference between those molecules that similar compositions.
Some are just a little shorter or some are longer. And I think where we’re at is. applying a generalized understanding of the health effects from the past ones to say, okay, if this old PFA s can be linked to prostate cancer can be linked to testicular cancer, can be linked to liver disease, we should apply those same roles at the same concentrations to any of the new ones.
And so if we do that I mean we basically, I mean we’re in a situation where the amount. Of pfas, of total pfas that Graham Peasley detected in gear was as high as 2% of the gear itself. 2%, which two? 2%. And just as a frame of reference I’m talking about a lot of numbers and I think it just, it could go over people’s heads, but this 2%, I really wanna emphasize this.
It’s not a direct translation, but this is as close as we can get. The EPA currently has health advisories for a few pfas, like a tiny number of PFASs. It’s disheartening, but they do have health advisories and those are specific to if you were. water that had some pfas in it. They say a health advisory means if your water has at least this much, it could be causing health outcomes.
Okay. So it’s like this is enough to cause a disease more or less. And in those health advisories, then the amount of pfas that needs to be in there to be concerning is less than a part per. less than a part per trillion. So imagine how many zeros you have. It’s, in fact, I think it’s about 0.04 parts per trillion.
Okay. And I said 2% of the gear in one of the studies was basically aggregate pfas. That’s a part per hundred, right? Yeah, that the EPA would say that even if you have a little bit less than a part per trillion, that’s to be concerned about. And so this is the level of magnitude and severity of exposure that when we learned about this and we’ve been working on this story for many years and then we’re closing it on six years we decided that we had to tell the story of burned because burned was originally part.
Of our feature film about Forever Chemicals. It was originally an act of our story, but when we heard that and we heard, oh my God, 2% of the year, and it’s probably been that way for a very long time. It represents a degree of exposure that I’ve never heard of in terms of a specific occupation.
Stack: gonna say, not only has it been that way for who knows how long, but how much worse was it before it became. Before someone started shining a spotlight on it. . I think that the one quote from the movie that, that stands out and makes you I dunno, we go with take a double take, is that the chemical that the manufacturers considered a chemicals so toxic, persistent, and bio accumulative, that there’s guidelines for how they need to be handled within the lab, correct.
So they’re afraid of their own workers touching or breathing in these chemicals.
Elijah: And I actually, I, as maybe additional really cool background story to this I would really encourage the film, and I think this is one, this one’s just on Netflix. Dark Waters. Which was a film that one of our producers, mark Ruffalo made a couple of years ago.
And it gives a little bit more of the background of the specific lawyer who really whose life work has been uncovering all of the internal documents that led us to know any of this because that, and that’s Rob Bilott, he’s featured in Burn briefly as well. . But yeah, the more that he uncovered from the DuPont company as well as the 3M company through the process of legal discovery the more it was revealed that essentially, there were internal debates with the companies that was, oh, hey the medical division is telling us that these chemicals that our workers are handling are pretty fucking.
that they’re pretty harmful. But they were very slow to then translate and say maybe we should add additional safety provisions for folks. Maybe they should be using gloves. Maybe they should be using respirators at one point. Because they were noticing associations between exposure to the chemicals and birth defects.
They just pulled all of the pregnant women. I think they pulled all the women off of that line of production because they were like yeah, the birth defects are pretty well established. We should just for our liability, we should probably only let men work on this line. That’s what was happening.
And I believe that’s, we’re talking about the 1960s, the 1970s
Stack: here. Yeah. And so there’s a recognition of how bad these chemicals are to to everybody. And especially in that lab setting. But to hell with it, let’s go ahead and keep putting ’em out there, because I’m only gonna guess and speculate that it is money based and it why?
I, it’s it flabbergast me still that we still have these things going on. Obviously, dollar wins out quite often. What chemical, oh, excuse me. Not chemicals. What cancers are we looking at predominantly? Or is, or does it run the gamut for firefighters from the gear?
Elijah: I would say so.
I don’t want, I don’t want to oversimplify because it is complicated. There’s a lot. Really brilliant scientists that, that we work with to try to answer that question. There are some that are exceptionally well associated. There’s, cause there’s multiple different types of research, right?
Or like health studies. And so I’ll just give like a very cursory view. There are internal documents. So these are like internal toxicological studies that actually the DuPont. Chemical company who is one of the original manufacturers of any pfas. They were part of the origins of the entire study of toxicology.
Like they it’s a very old company and they’re part of the formation of like our branches of toxicology, which is really fascinating. But they’ve had and they did have internal departments. that all they did was Essent.
Like dose animals which is what toxicology is, right? It’s like dosing a mouse to determine, okay, at what point does the liver fail or at what point does this organ enlarge? And that’s like the process of toxicology. There’s multiple ways to do it, but that’s a historic method.
Then there are also human health studies. , and these are really hard to do because you need a lot of people to get good information. You have to design the study in a good way. You need crazy amounts of money to do them. And people can drop out over time and you can make mistakes. And if diseases are very lethal because this is, and this has been very relevant with PFAS research.
There’s concerns and I don’t know what the consensus is now. Among the academics, but things like pancreatic cancer that can be exceptionally quick and lethal. Once someone in, has the disease that broad health studies would never be able to associate those because a participant would die, before they would necessarily be included as, oh yeah, this person succumbed to pancreatic cancer.
So I will just say there are a number and I’ll probably send a couple of resources. We’re actually working on creating some training and educational materials to, to share with the film later this month. But in terms of Testicular cancer is quite well established, right? Kidney cancer is pretty well established.
Prostate cancer a little less but the data continues to grow. There’s a lot of associations with hepato toxicity, which just means liver toxicity which may translate into cancer. And so it just depends on if you’re drawing from animal studies. There, there’s a lot of research, but some may argue it’s not a direct translation, unfortunately, it basically seems like most of the animal modeling that we can look at for pfa s is essentially telling us something that will then be confirmed 10 years later in people.
And so my biggest point is this. I think if we continue to move slow on. Eliminating exposure to these chemicals, then eventually the stent will catch up and say, oh yes. So it’s brain cancer, lung cancer, skin cancer prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, all of these currently weaker associated cancer outcomes will probably become more crystallized.
But to me that’s a stupid future. I think that there’s currently enough data for a. really a, a massive number of cancers, as well as other significant health effects where the data is crystal clear. , one of, one of the areas that the data is crystal clear, and this has been known for a very long time about pfas and health, is that they are immunotoxic, which means that they can cause the immune system to fail actually in both ways so they can cause the immune system to dysfunction by making it underactive.
So immunosuppression and in fact, Even a paper, just I think a year or two ago that, in the wake of a global pandemic, If you have an underactive immune system, that means when you take, if you take a vaccine, your body may fail to mount an immune response, and that vaccine will not function properly.
Meaning I might get a booster for covid, but because of my exposure to pfa s I’m not actually mounting the immune response I’m supposed to. Okay? So that’s one example of immuno of immunotoxicity. The other is overact activat. Of the immune system, and I think most people have heard of this, it’s called autoimmunity.
When your immune system starts to incorrectly recognize things including your own cells as harmful and your body essentially attacks itself. And which, which ironically , I myself live with a chronic autoimmune disease. And perhaps there’s an association between the fact that I grew up drinking pfa s most of my life, actually all of my life.
And now I live with this disease so anyways. All right. I can ramble, obviously. So I’m just to stop
Stack: there. ? No, I think the takeaway is that, we sit in this gear and we’re we soak in these chemicals basically. and then what the result is can, like you say, it can range.
It can be cancers, it can be autoimmune, it can be whatever. And the word is out there. It’s just not out there to the point where it needs to be. And that’s why this film is so important for people to see. What is the role that, that these chemicals p play in our gear? Why are they being used in our.
Elijah: So it’s hard to get the firm answer. It’s not like we’re sitting down talking to the manufacturers and they’re just saying, whoa, this is the specific reason. But we have our experts have some pretty strong guesses. So the thing about the forever chemical nature, the carbon fluorine bond the reason it’s used in so many things is.
It creates a very strong ability to repel water and grease. So the probably most well known patent patented form of a pfas would be Teflon, right? If they’re literally synonymous with non-stick, right? The. , the product benefit of having a non-stick pan is that it’s really easy to clean, and that is by definition a result of the car, the carbon chlorine bonds.
And so the idea of why do they coat turnout gear all three layers. Why do they coat the layers with copious amounts of pfas? The idea is that it’s the same purpose. It’s the water and grease repellency. In fact I was recently giving a talk about this I know a workshop on pfas at unc and there was a researcher who studies textiles whose presentation was specifically about, it was very weird cuz his argument was basically, we should be careful about taking out pfas because then if we take out p.
We will lose grease repellency, and it’s really important that turnout gear be grease repellent because if it, if a gear, a pursuit of gear gets saturated in grease, it can combust. . But what was, I won’t name the person, but what I found fascinating is then later in his slides , he contradicted himself and then he had a piece of turnout gear that was coded in pfas, got saturated in grease and also combusted.
So it was like you, you just completely disproving yourself. But that’s it. It’s to make it so that if you’re responding to a fire on a third story and you’re going up, a super tall ladder to the third floor on an outside window and it’s raining like a torrential downpour, that you’re not carrying that extra water weight that is believed to be the core reason that pfas are used.
Stack: Is there a push to, to find a new way to waterproof it?
Elijah: So this is, to me, the frustrating part is there are and have been chemical methods to waterproof. Long before pfas and even after pfas the crux, and we didn’t get exactly into the weeds in the film specifically, although it, this will be a component of the educational resources which will have accompanying the film.
It seems to come down to the N F P A 1971 Amendment. And I’m not the expert of this, but essentially what this did this was the transition from rubberized turnout gear. And this basically mandated. The use of pfas, it didn’t literally say that the only chemicals you can use to meet the standard are PFA s.
It didn’t literally say you must use fluorinated organics to do this, but there’s something called the UV light test which many have argued is an arbitrary. Unnecessary requirements, and it is because PFA s are one of the only types of chemicals that can withstand the UV light test which is a requirement to meet that 1971 N F P A guideline.
It is literally because of that, that no gear manufacturer, at least this moment, Is able to make pfas free gear, because if they do, it won’t pass the UV light test and it won’t technically pass N F P A standards. So
Stack: N F P A is put in place to protect us and to set some standards, and yes, it is holding in place gear and chemicals that are literally killing us.
Elijah: I wish there was a better answer, but yes.
Stack: . So what do we do as firefighters on the ground? How do we help ourselves?
Elijah: . It’s, there’s multiple ways I think right now. And I think the most important piece is, and what we’re trying to do with our educational outreach is to really encourage solidarity, right?
The reason that th this film came together and all of this change is starting to occur. Is because of a lot of different people thinking outside of the box, getting together and just basically demanding better. I really appreciate the move that both the I F is pushing as well as last Call Foundation.
It’s a great nonprofit that helped helped us get burned put together which is that the N F P A requirement right now, while it still has yet to be overturned? It should be ignored. It should be disavowed. This is a clear example of how that requirement has not. Done anything to protect the health and safety of firefighters, but quite to the contrary.
But it’s that requirement that is stopping industry from manufacturing safe gear. Now I have heard of at least one. Manufacturer in the us who compiles the fabrics for turnout gear who’s as a company has just internally decided they will never use pfas, any pfa s at all in any of their products moving forward.
And they weren’t required to do that. They just said , clearly this is bad and we don’t want to be a part of it anymore. So we wanna be the first in a way of change. So that’s, that should be really promising because it means that the wheels of product change are happening. What does that mean right now though?
What does the firefighter listening do? And again, we’re gonna have all these resources available. We’re gonna release them to all the folks that have signed up on our website very soon. We hope to do that before the end of the month. There are some things that can be done this second, and it’s just gonna base be based on what does your firehouse look like?
Do you have resources? If you don’t, that’s fine. There’s still things you can do for. , we have to stop wearing gear right now. And I don’t mean literally entirely, but if you’re going on a medic call, if you’re going on basically anything that doesn’t require exigent use of the gear. So like an active fire, do not wear the gear.
You are exposing yourself from just wearing it. So you don’t wanna, you don’t wanna lead it in a common area. What some departments I’ve already seen, I’ve traveled to a lot of different firehouses now some are already creating basically separate storage base. To keep the gear because over, over time the, while the pfas themselves do not degrade, we’ve cut, we’ve touched on that.
They’re forever chemicals. They essentially can fall off of the gear. I won’t get into the nitty gritty of how that works. There’s all these things called polymer side chains that degrade. But essentially, and this has been well, documented now they. Fall off over time and they will aggregate in dust.
In the firehouse. So firehouse dust has been detected as super high in organic flooring, right? Or in, in pfas, which means breathing in that dust can be an exposure source. So keeping your gear off as much as possible, keeping it in a separate space. Adding a filtration, like an air filtration option to that space would be another step.
Basically keeping the station really clean and trying to minimize exposure. Treat it like it’s a hazardous substance because it is, you just haven’t been told that. And then, and this is just something that I have been personally recommending as someone who currently lives with a well-established health effect, linked to exposure to pfas.
I think that the damage is pretty well established at this point in terms of exposures that any firefighter has faced, even from just a few years on the job. To now, you need to be really proactively mindful of your health. , right? You really need to be visiting a gp, you need to be doing annual checkups.
And I think you need to work on proactive screenings for things like cancer. And if someone becomes sick or they are worried they might be sick if they are concerned that they have a health effect. Again, we’re gonna share documents that try to unpack all this stuff. I strongly encourage that someone seeks legal representation because unfortunately the people who were responsible for this in the first place they have no plans of trying to compensate for damages.
But that’s how we make them change. And that’s why so many of them have been. .
Stack: So you mentioned it at the beginning when we talked about the premiere and you had some worries about how the movie was going to be received at the premiere for the 2000 plus people that were there. And one of the reasons you mentioned was because of the international, the I A F.
Was there any contentiousness between you guys and the union or was that just because of the past the people in, in, in power in the past and the, has the new regime changed? Its. .
Elijah: Yeah. I was a little concerned at first just because I don’t, it’s a big organization, right? And there’s clearly politics involved.
And I know, I knew for a fact, and it’s examined in the film that like the previous administration of the I A F was essentially. Part of a disinformation campaign to suppress this information. And I, I’ll just say this is opinion and speculation and I can’t comment in terms of factual accuracy.
I’ll let folks do their own research. But it’s been pretty well alleged that previous administration was receiving kickbacks, was receiving financial incentives to keep this hidden, which is disturbing and disgusting. And so what I think has been really positive, and I’m so grateful ed Kelly, general President, ed Kelly the current head of the I A F has completely inverted the platform of the I F and says We cannot keep this information from members.
We need to denounce previous. A actions that were harming our membership, and this is now like the platform for the if f and I think this is exactly what a labor union should be doing, right? If they have 330 something thousand members, they have collected bargaining power that maybe one or two individual firehouses don’t have.
And so if they have this, the ability to bargain on behalf of not only their members, but I. That’s almost, I think there’s 1.2 million firefighters right now in the us so that’s almost a quarter of the population of firefighters. That’s a lot of bargaining power for them to then go and leverage that same power to the people who manufacture the textiles, the people who manufacture the gear and say, Hey, stop making this.
Just stop doing it. I understand that the N F P A standard doesn’t allow you to, you screw. Do it anyways. And and that’s essentially the stance that the union is taking. And I think they need to continue to be bold and be strong because, if I think about how the majority of firefighters or volunteers who don’t have the money or the resources or the time necessarily, to also advocate for themselves here to replace the gear.
Because right now, That’s the future we need to see. We need to see every set of turnout gear, and I think a lot of firehouses, folks get two sets of gear each. So we need two new sets of gear for every firefighter. And personally, I think that should be the financial responsibility of those who did it in the first place, who gave people unsafe gear.
Stack: So what’s your future hold? What? What are you working on now?
Elijah: This is taking a massive amount of our time. Of course we’re trying really hard. We were surprised at how much interest and excitement and fervor and passion there has been which is great. I think right now we’ve gotten, it’s about 1700 different screening requests that have come predominantly from firehouses.
Which is exciting, but it’s very overwhelming. And so that’s why we’ve been developing this essentially a kit, a training kit that all these firehouses can use to host their own events to train their membership, to train, the folks in their firehouse as well as their local community.
Because I think I’m an outsider. . I’m not a firefighter. I actually, I don’t think even a single member of my family that I know of is a firefighter, but I feel very much like a part of this community now and one of the pieces that breaks my heart, understanding how occupational cancer has been a reality for the fire service for so long.
I don’t think that people outside of the fire service know that at. , like I, if I’m telling, if I’m telling this story, if I’m talking about our film to someone who’s not in the fire service, like I have to preface with that. I have to preface with, the disproportionate rates of cancer that firefighters face on a global basis.
And so to me, part of what. Aiming to accomplish not only like our number one priority is that we need safe turnout gear as fast as fricking possible, and we need to mitigate exposure for every firefighter right now. But the next step is how do we get the broader society to understand that this has been happening so that we can look at this from a bigger picture and say, okay, if we’re gonna go ahead and, I don’t know, make some big federal change, or make some big textile mandate, Any t p e, not just turnout gear, any t p e should be designed to be safe for the wearer.
Because and this is why our feature doc, which we’ll examine get a little bit more into the nitty gritty and the history of Forever Chemicals, where they came from. Which by the way, they’re a result of the Manhattan Project, which is a pretty dark part of American history. I was gonna say that’s a throwback.
Yeah it’s, it’s ironic that the most harmful class of chemicals that we’ve ever created were a part of the most destructive research project and human history. But that’s true. And. That’s our feature documentary, which is still in the works. It was originally going to be, burned was supposed to be a part of that, but we decided it needed its own.
It needed to live on its own. So we’ll still be working on that over the next year. And I’ll just give one example of how. , that film was called Gen X the Saga Forever Chemicals. And just one example of why everything that we’re observing right now with burned and all of this passion and interest to say, let’s just fix this problem.
Why are we waiting? Let’s just fix this problem. Which is amazing. Like I really do think that in a year or two we could actually fix this problem for firefighters, at least by getting them safe. And not making them have to pay for the themselves, cuz like that’s just, it really kills me from an environmental justice standpoint.
But one other example , there has been research also by Graham Peasley. He was one of the co-authors that’s found that Another avenue that Pfa s has just been pushed into products unnecessarily, is there were mandatory school uniforms. So uniforms that kids have to wear that Graham’s lab detected.
Were super coated in pfas. , so these and let’s just think about that for a second. Let’s think about the fact that we’re talking about the clothes that children have to wear, who, were thinking like middle school and high school, where they already lack, a lot of their own agency to make these decisions and they’re being forced to wear this stuff.
That at this point we’ve pretty well established. There is that level of dermal absorption. There is that direct exposure.
Stack: When you take into account that what you talked about with epigenetics and the fact that they’re wearing it from such a young age forward, and then they’re gonna be exposed to it in every aspect of life after that, how’s that going to affect the generationally?
Elijah: And . We need like a whole hour to unpack all of that. Oh, yeah. But I think I think the big picture here is pretty obvious. It’s pretty clear. To me, the solution is not hard or complex. And again, I say this from someone who’s been in a lot of chemistry labs have done this work.
And all the scientists quite honestly have been talking about this for a very long time. They just, they don’t always speak in words that people understand and they’re they can’t always reach people. But I think burned is really reaching at least firefighters very well, and it’s speaking to them.
And if there’s any lessons to be learned from this it’s not just, hey, from now. There’s no pfas in turnout gear. Like I think that’s a great first part, but just any textile, any clothing, any garment that a person has to wear sh maybe none of it should have pfas in the first place. It’s certainly not the best way to waterproof something.
And here’s my other thing and we’ve seen pfas in just the past few years, for anyone that hasn’t known about this, there’s been a lot of amazing change that’s been happening on a global. To eliminate exposure to pfas. And here’s I’ll give this one cuz it already has happened.
And unfortunately it’s not been laws that has changed it, it’s actually just been community uproar. For many years. The fast food packaging. , right? So like the waxy paper that you get your Burger King burger in was also coded in pfas. And you might say that’s silly. What is that?
What is that? For the grease repellency? It is. So even though you might use that piece of paper for , I don’t know if you’re like me, 10 seconds cuz you just demolished your food. They still coded that in the wax paper because it made it slightly more convenient for a consumer. And so because of that you have multiple steps of exposure.
You have exposure that’s been already measured of the wax paper, transfers the pfas to the food so that you’re. You’re literally eating some PFA s with your burger. Then you toss it into the trash where it goes to a landfill. So then that pfas leeches out and contaminates some drinking water. And then also before that wrapper was made in the first place, those chemicals had to be manufactured, which meant there was probably some.
environmental exposure in the community where those were made. And then when the paper was assembled, they most likely also generated some sort of waste. So you’ve got four different communities who are exposed to some amount of pfas so that your burger wrapper was a little less soggy for the one minute you were eating it.
And I bring this example up because that has actually changed. That was the case just a few years ago. And because of, quite honestly a culmination of community voices coming together, a couple of nonprofits, some advocates, and some journalists, and then the researchers that proved it all. Essentially the big manufacturers of all these, the fast food the fast food giants, including McDonald’s.
Finally said, oh, we didn’t know that the rappers had pfa. We just knew that they were grease repellent. We’re gonna stop using PFA s in all 38,000 stores. And that happened I think it was two two years ago at this point. They said, we’re gonna set a global decree to not use PFA s at all.
And then Burger King and Wendy’s and Starbucks, and every single other one of them said, we’re also gonna do that. And so I just wanna leave that as like really an example of how. can be part of a much bigger issue being solved for other areas of society. And I don’t wanna underplay, this is so significant.
Like the amount of exposure that every firefighter has received cannot be forgotten. But I don’t know. I’m always like, let’s, we have a lot of momentum here and this is, there’s a hopeful end. To fixing this and let’s not waste that. You know what I mean? Every firefighter I’ve met they’re different.
Everybody’s unique. But they all wanna help people. And so to me, if we’re gonna channel that energy, if I want to help people, I want to help other communities, that’s the way to do it. Let’s not stop it. Turnout gear needs to be PFAS free. How about we look at banning this class of chemicals in the first place?
Until, and this has never happened until the companies can actually prove to us that they have a PFAS that’s safe. Which by the way, that’s never happened. I
Stack: was gonna say, it sounds like that’s damn near impossible to prove anyway.
Elijah: It’s and that’s what, that’s like the golden I would say that’s the holy grail.
That’s the golden trophy. Of all this work is The way that chemicals are regulated in this country is it is upon us. It is the burden. The burden of proof lies on those who are exposed to a chemical to conduct research, to fund studies, to pursue litigation. To then prove, oh yes, your chemical is linked to disease A, B, and C, which I received.
And that is essentially the process by which we attempt to regulate chemicals in this country. And it would be an exceptionally simple switch to say, . How about it’s a radical concept. What if the people who are incentivized to produce those chemicals, what if the people who profit from it, who have the internal data and already know of the harm, what if they have the burden of proof before they release something to prove that it’s safe?
It would completely solve all of this.
Stack: It sounds so simple. Doesn. It is. That’s in reality. It is. But in practice, of course
Elijah: it’s not, it’s anytime you’re competing against trillions of dollars. There’s some strife. But but I just last, I think it was yeah, middle of last year 3M.
and 3M and DuPont were the two basically original key companies involved in the origins of pfas and why they penetrated so many different products. Literally tens of thousands of products from Scotch Card to Teflon to Goretex you name it. They have a bunch of others that people haven’t heard of.
Last year, 3M. Multi-billion dollar, probably Trillion dollar company International said we are permanently phasing out.
Any pfas at all. They actually did that, and it completely has caught everybody off guard. So I think the writing’s on the wall. Yeah. So there’s hope there is absolutely hope. But yeah, we still gotta get through this part of it.
Stack: So if you don’t mind, and I told you at the beginning, I wouldn’t ambush you or surprise you with any questions, but I did forget to tell you, and I don’t know if you’ve listened to my show or not, and it doesn’t matter.
I’m, I, you’re a busy person. , I’d like to ask two questions at the end of every show. And there, there’s nothing earth shattering. And it’s nothing that. If you don’t have answers, I’m okay with that too. I named my show Af loosely after a book that was written about Vietnam and that book was called The Things They Carried.
And it’s about a platoon in Vietnam who carries whatever they carry into battle, a weapon, an aid bag, a radio, whatever it is. It they talk about that, but then they more discuss what’s carried out, the emotional scars, the traumas, and those things you take with you for the rest of your life.
And so I named the show the things we all carry. As firefighters or first responders, we’re carrying our gear in, but we’re also carrying a lot out when we come from a traumatic call. And to play on that a little bit, I’d like to ask everybody at the end of the show for something that they ha have that maybe they call an everyday carry, something you take with you every day.
It can be, it doesn’t have to be physical. It’s just something that, that maybe is on your body or in your presence every day, that if you leave without you feel naked.
Elijah: . I think I’ll go for an experience then. Perfect. Because I think, and not the most introspective, I don’t reflect as much as I should, but I’ve started doing it more recently and I’ve realized there was a moment my father taught.
That has really changed the way that I look at situations in life. It’s particularly when we’re thinking about a stranger in need of help. I’ll give the summarized version of the story, which is, I think I was some kind of precocious, , middle schooler probably, or end of grade school. I was still a child, I still had that strong that like inherent selfish nature of children, just wanting to do their own thing and not being too concerned with other people.
And I think we were out to go and get a movie that had just come out that I was very excited about. And so we went to a blockbuster cuz those still existed. And I remember waiting in the. My dad grabbed the movie and so excited. We’re going back, gonna rush home and this woman who we don’t know approaches us.
And I’ve got the stranger danger alarm going off. , I don’t really know what to do and all I’m thinking is just, dad, can you please just go home? I just, I don’t know what we’re doing right now. But that’s not how he looked at the situation, he didn’t know this person at all, and.
we were new to the area, so he was probably a little stressed, but he just sat there and he listened to this person, explained how she had missed the bus and was trying to get home to her family. And her sister lived pretty close by, but she didn’t have a phone, so she had no way to contact her.
And he he was hearing what this woman was saying. He could see that she was struggling and uncomfortable and it was, Obviously hard for her to ask this question of a total stranger. And he just sat there and soaked it all in and said, you know what hold on for a minute. And he basically told me, shut up and wait.
We’re gonna do this. And he got in touch with the woman’s family member her sister. Called and said, Hey, we’re waiting here. She said that she needs a ride because she missed the bus and I just really wanna make sure that she gets home safe. And then we sat there and waited for, to me, what felt like an eternity.
Un until her sister came and she was able to get safely home. And as I age, I start to really reflect on that experience more and more because at the time I thought this is stupid. We just missed the whole movie. What, why are we doing this? And I can look back at it now and say this is an example of.
What it means to be a good person. When someone approaches you who’s vulnerable and needs help and you don’t know them, I think it’s really common in society to just act like you don’t see them, to tune them out, to treat them like they don’t matter. And and I. Especially doing all of this work with firefighters now.
I see a lot of firefighters do not have that immediate response. I’ve seen, I’ve literally seen Paul Co, who’s, one of the stars of the film. I’ve witnessed him helping someone in a crisis moment, and he’s retired now, but he still has that mentality of, do you need help?
What can I do right now to fix that? And he just goes into action mode. And my dad was the exact same way in that situation. and four years ago when we met Paul and Diane, they were essentially asking us for help. They still weren’t being listened to by, by people that were willing to sit and do the work.
And so that’s what I carry is that experience of, this might be inconvenient for me right now, but maybe I’m making this other person’s life, so much better and safer and more whole. Because I’m treating them as a human being.
Stack: I think that’s beyond introspective.
That’s that ex, that’s exactly what the world needs is people just to take time, talk to somebody, learn to learn their life a little bit and you don’t have to get in their shoes, but you get a feel for their shoes a little bit. ,
Elijah: It, it can feel so hard and at the same time it’s, it can be so simple,
Stack: and it’s I’ve told the story before of . I was trying to get to a concert in Richmond one day, and I left the hotel and it was pouring down rain. And I didn’t have an umbrella because I never prepare myself for anything like that, . And I was trying to figure out how I’m gonna get across two or four lanes of traffic into the parking lot to get my car without getting soaking wet.
And a homeless guy walks by and he has an umbrella, and I asked him, I said, Hey I have five bucks on me. Can I borrow your umbrella? I’ll bring it right. And he looked at me like I was crazy. Which, because now that I think about it, I was asking this man who has nothing to give me one of his few possessions and trust me with it.
And I said, I, he said, no, I don’t know about that. And I, and then he goes, I’ll tell you what though. I’ll walk with you. And in that short time that we walked from the hotel, f hotel lobby to the, to my car, it was just a chance to touch base with a human. And it wasn’t a homeless person, it was a.
And that’s that’s the same thing. It’s just treat people like that with some respect and some interest. Wow. So the other question I’d like to ask is, do you have a book you’d like to recommend the audience? ?
Elijah: If they wanna really understand anything more about this the lawyer who I’ll keep coming back to Rob Bilott, who’s also in the movie Dark Waters he has essentially an expose of his work.
He got involved in this in the nineties and without him having stumbled in. Completely sideways, by the way. And his background never should have led him down this rabbit hole. But it’s the only reason, like we even have the term pfas, like we wouldn’t know about any of this stuff. And his book is called Exposure.
Incredibly amazing and important information. I do recommend the audio book though, because let’s be honest, it’s written by a lawyer, . It’s not the most fanciful fiction. I like to spend, I pride myself as like a storyteller. I like to paint a nice picture and make it interesting. And some of it’s a little nitty gritty, but if someone really wants a deep dive, they really want to understand the background that led into all of this.
And just how much, truly mountains. Of research literal so many documents that they had an entirely separate room, which we filmed in, it’s called the document room that this massive law firm had to use to store all of this. If anyone wants to really take a deep dive, then exposure by Rob Bilott is an absolute must read.
Stack: All right. I’ll link to that in the show notes. And speaking of links, where can everybody find you and what’s the, just give us your. Yeah.
Elijah: I’m personally less the fan of social media, although I’m getting over it. But ethereal films.org is our website. We have multiple social media links that can be found at the bottom of our homepage.
And I’ll probably send a link that can include all that to share in the show notes. But yeah, we try to, we do a lot of things and, and we have other projects on the pipeline. But again, always just trying to think, you. . I’m a huge fan of the expression to plant trees that you will never live, to enjoy the shade of.
We try to do the same thing, instigate and and improve the world through stories.
Stack: And where can people watch the film? How do they get their eyes on it?
Elijah: I wish I had the answer right now. . Okay. Most likely Slightly moving target. We are going to make an announcement very. Hopefully by, by the end of this month through our email lister, which have a multiple thousands of requests on we’ll also make a big blast on social media.
We’ve just got a little bit of work. We have a massive distribution company that wants to work with us to get the film out. So if you are listening because you want a copy of the film or you want the educational package for. Your fire department or your firehouse go through our website, ethereal films.org/burn.
Put your name on the list and we will contact you directly with information. That’s the fastest way that we’re gonna get it out. And then a little bit later in the year. We will have the film available on all sorts of different online streaming platforms. So if people just wanna watch it at their house they just want a personal copy they will be able to do
Stack: perfect. Then I will direct people towards your website and tell them that it’s well worth the watch, especially if you’re a firefighter, and obviously if you’re not even more so to bring attention to what we’re going through as firefighters. The health risk we’re experiencing just because of our gear.
So the general public needs to see it as well. I I appreciate your time. This has been a fascinating conversation.
Elijah: Yeah. Thank you so much. And yeah, I’m always excited to, to chat about this.
Stack: Enjoy the rest of your day and I’ll, I will send you a message when this episode is getting ready to be.
Publishing, I believe it’ll be about, it’ll probably be about two or three weeks. I want to get it out before, cuz I’m supposed to sit down with Paul and Diane and talk to them. I want to get it out right around the same time and maybe right about right before it, and then have their story follow up with yours.
So I, yeah. I appreciate, love that. I appreciate your time. Go enjoy the rest of your day and stay in. Yes.
Elijah: Yeah. And enjoy. You said you had some nice weather, so I hope you can take advantage
Stack: of it. . I’m gonna try I’m gonna try, if going out to the grocery store counts as enjoying a nice weather, that’s what I’m about to go to.
Elijah: Yeah. I think you technically have to be outside to do that for. Exactly. So that all, thank you
Stack: very much. Take care man. Enjoy talking to you. And we’re out.