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Monday, May 1, 2023

Protecting the protectors

URI to host film screening and discussion on impact of PFAS in firefighting

Kristen Curry 

The University of Rhode Island is providing a forum for a true story that illustrates the impact of PFAS in a personal way, with the film screening of Burned, the story of how the spouse of a firefighter revealed significant exposure to forever chemicals affecting the firefighting community nationally.

The film drives home the prevalence of PFAS because it tells the story of a local community – Fall River – and an unexpected source of exposure to the chemicals in firefighter turnout gear with high levels of PFAS not disclosed on labels.

The 30-minute film will be hosted by URI’s Superfund Research Program, STEEP (Sources, Transport, Exposure and Effects of PFAS) on Thursday, May 4, from 6 to 7 p.m. in Room 170 of the College of Pharmacy’s Avedisian Hall, 7 Greenhouse Road, Kingston.

The URI community and the public are invited to attend the screening and panel discussion featuring Jason Burns, Fall River firefighter and executive director of the Last Call Foundation, with Rainer Lohmann, Ph.D., director of STEEP at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography, and Angela Slitt, Ph.D., STEEP researcher and project lead, from the URI College of Pharmacy.

They have been joined in their efforts to share information about PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” by STEEP stakeholder and advocate Diane Cotter, who has worked for many years to expose the existence of these harmful chemicals in firefighter turnout gear. 

Cotter is the wife of the firefighter featured in the film and has participated in STEEP public lectures and events. She first became alert to the existence — and impact — of PFAS after her husband’s cancer diagnosis and witnessing the rate of illness of young firefighters in the department.

The documentary premiered earlier this year and is a collaboration between Ethereal Films, the Last Call Foundation, and Footpath Pictures. It was produced by actor Mark Ruffalo.

URI STEEP Superfund Research Center, employs research, applied science, student education and training, and outreach approaches to build community capacity for responding to PFAS pollution. 

PFAS, a large and decades-old family of chemicals, infiltrate many human and natural environments, such as the chemicals that coat pizza boxes and microwave popcorn bags, nonstick cookware, and waterproof clothing. These heavily used chemicals have also leached into water, from marine habitats to drinking water resources. 

URI’s STEEP is committed to ensuring that sound science informs public dialogue on the issue and is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences through a multi-project center grant awarded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ Superfund Research Program.

Lohmann, a chemical oceanographer and STEEP lead researcher, says, “We know that the aqueous foam used in firefighting gear can sicken people who work with it, and also contaminate groundwater where the foam is used often, like airports or fire training sites. Now we’re learning that firefighters are likely up against another PFAS challenge — the turnout gear that’s actually supposed to protect them.”

STEEP team members say that awareness is critical to avert human and environmental health impacts from PFAS exposure.

“PFAS have been proven to be tied to broad and serious health issues, from increased cancer risk to hypothyroidism to dyslipidemia to decreased response to vaccination,” says toxicologist and STEEP co-lead researcher Slitt of the University’s College of Pharmacy. “If we can identify and understand PFAS risk from occupational exposure, we can determine whether their chemical exposure has also impacted their health and risk for disease.”

Visit here to register for the film. The presentation is free and open to the public and firehouses are particularly encouraged to attend.

To learn more about URI’s STEEP Project or the screening of Burned, please visit or contact Jaclyn Witterschein,, 401-874-6886.