Prove your humanity

By James Zipprodt/WDIY News

Lehigh University’s Integrated Business and Engineering Program focuses on product development and entrepreneurship, according to the program’s website.

Daniel Kaukonen, a student in the program, says he takes a mix of engineering, business core, and IBE-specific classes. It was in one of these IBE-specific classes for freshmen and sophomores that students were given a broad task:

“The assignment really is just to go out and find a problem in the market, any market really, and then create a solution for it.”

Listen to the story:

The group of five students, including Kaukonen, started researching and landed on vapor burns among firefighters.

“But I think the turning point within our project story was going down to that Bethlehem Fire Department, talking to Captain Griffin, and just realizing how large an issue these PFAS chemicals were.”

That’s group member Benjamin Erickson. The chemicals he’s talking about – PFAS – are synthetic chemicals used in products like non-stick pans, food-handling tools, and more to resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water.

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” can damage the liver and immune system and cause certain types of cancer.

These toxic chemicals are also used in the foam firefighters often use to put out blazes and the protective gear they wear. The project shifted from the prevention of vapor burns to a larger prevention effort during their conversation with Captain Griffin of the Bethlehem Fire Department, explains Ryan Harris.

“Most of the firefighter deaths that are considered active duty deaths were actually due to cancer, like after retirement. We thought that the main issue would be vapor burns, but when we actually talked to him, we discovered that the carcinogenic chemicals were really much heavier on his mind.”

As Sebastien Kumar elaborated, their market survey found a need for equipment that provides vapor protection, particulate blocking, thermal resistance, and functionality, all while being PFAS-free.

“So we went out, we found materials that are not toxic, and we also found a new coating that’s PFAS-free and exhibited similar properties to the current ones that are on the market, worked on making a product similar to the other ones in terms of functionality, but using different materials that were PFAS-free.”

The students explained that very few pieces of firefighting gear currently on the market are PFAS-free. The National Fire Protection Association recently introduced bans on the chemicals, but companies have been slow to alter their products to meet that standard.

That’s where their product, Blaze Blockers, comes in. Their design includes those safety needs previously mentioned; protection from vapor, particulates, heat, and PFAS. A marketing strategy would involve building credibility by allowing departments to try the product before beginning a 90-day plan including a website, social media, email campaign, and presentations at conventions.

There’s even a financial forecast for the product based on real quotes for engineering designs, prototypes, and carrying out their marketing plan.

The group said the project inspired more thought into the issue and its solutions.

“My parents weren’t able to come out to the actual presentation, but I would practice for days before giving my presentation, my section to them, and their only question at the end was, ‘Why aren’t we actually doing this?’ So that was definitely inspiring to maybe take this idea to life. Maybe we can continue talking about this, even if we don’t have the resources to bring this idea to life, but continue talking about the issue at hand and spreading information about it.”

As of early May, thirteen states have banned firefighting foam that contains PFAS. Pennsylvania is not one of them.