The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Maryland can protect firefighters and other first-responders with a bill that bans some chemicals

The Maryland House of Delegates gathers in Annapolis on Dec. 6. (Brian Witte/Associated Press)
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Christine Taylor is the widow of firefighter George Walter Taylor.

My husband, George Walter Taylor, a firefighter, was 46 years old when he died. We were married for almost 20 years. I came from a family heavily involved in the fire and rescue service, career and volunteer, so we were the perfect match. I am a nurse, so in addition to sharing intense working hours, I share his commitment to helping others. Together we raised four children and spoiled two grandchildren. Walter, as he was known, spent 31 years of his life in the fire service, starting at the age of 15 and ending the moment he took his last breath.

As a professional firefighter, Walter was a strong advocate for protecting the health and safety of his fellow firefighters. He knew the dangers they faced on the job, including those unseen. He knew they were being diagnosed with medical problems and various cancers attributed to their multiple exposures to harmful chemicals and substances. In particular he knew about the risks of exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which he, and his colleagues were exposed to in some of the firefighting foams they used, in the air they breathed when consumer products such as rugs and carpets burned and even from their gear, which was coated in the chemicals. These chemicals are often known as “forever chemicals,” because they don’t break down in the body or in the environment. This makes them particularly dangerous because they’ve been linked to a host of illnesses, including cancer.

Walter’s lifetime exposure to PFAS was 31 years. He used firefighting foams containing PFAS and was exposed to combustible materials on the fireground while wearing his turnout gear.

In May 2018, Walter was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic neuroendocrine cancer. For two years, we tried various treatments to decrease the spread of his cancer, with no success. Walter died on May 25, 2020, peacefully with all of us at his side. His autopsy listed the cause of death as metastatic neuroendocrine cancer related to occupational exposures.

Walter is not alone. According to the International Association of Firefighters, cancer is the leading line of duty cause of death for firefighters, with 75 percent of firefighter deaths coming from occupational cancers. I can’t bring Walter back, but we owe it to him and the families of Walter’s fellow firefighters to do everything we can to reduce their exposure to PFAS and other cancer-causing chemicals. Doing so will help not only our firefighters and their families but also all of us. Firefighters like Walter are the canary in the coal mine for these chemicals, which are putting all of us at risk as they make their way into the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.

Since Walter’s passing, his oldest daughter, Miranda, has given birth to our third granddaughter. Our daughter Kayla is a paid EMT/volunteer firefighter that is getting married this year to a firefighter. Our son, Justin, is a volunteer firefighter aspiring to be a paid firefighter. Our youngest daughter, Mackenzie, celebrated her 10th birthday last week and has dreams of being a firefighter, “just like Daddy.” We know that Walter is always watching over us, but our desire for him to physically be here breaks our hearts on even the happiest of days.

Fortunately, the Maryland legislature and Gov. Larry Hogan (D) have a chance to help protect Walter’s fellow firefighters and Maryland families from ever having to feel the pain, hurt and loss that my children and I feel every day. The bipartisan George “Walter” Taylor Act, being debated in Annapolis, would stop the use of these dangerous chemicals in rug and carpets and food packaging and ensure fire departments switch to safer alternatives for firefighting foam. The bill also would require notification for all firefighting gear that contains PFAS chemicals. I am thankful to state Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) and Del. Sara N. Love (D-Montgomery) for introducing the bill and am calling on every legislator and the governor to support it.

By passing this law, we can protect the lives of our firefighting brothers and sisters, so they can continue to protect your life and the lives of Maryland families.

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