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We’re launching an exciting new podcast today — The Poison Detectives — produced by Sandra Bartlett, who brought us the award-winning podcast The Salmon People.

Like Alexandra Morton in The Salmon People, Diane Cotter discovered a problem that no one wanted to accept. And like Alex, she was attacked, shunned and abused on social media as she gathered the evidence, piece by piece, to reveal a big problem with firefighting gear.

When Diane’s husband, Paul Cotter, was diagnosed with prostate cancer at the age of 55, they were surprised and wondered if it was related to his job as a firefighter. And then, Paul began getting calls from firefighters at his station in Worcester, Mass. — all of them with prostate cancer.

“Another month goes by and another guy called me and said, ‘Paul, I just got diagnosed with prostate. What do I do?’ Like, right, here’s what you do. And then, another one. And another one. And I started a list,” said Paul Cotter.

While Paul was keeping his list, Diane was googling to find out where there might be risks in the equipment used by firefighters. And she began writing to everyone — scientists, gear manufacturers and lawyers — who might know something. Hardly anyone responded to her emails, so she sent them again and again.

She had a breakthrough when Erin Brockovich responded to her email. Erin Brockovich’s story was told in the movie by the same name back in 2000, with Julia Roberts in the lead role that won her an Oscar.

Erin Brockovich was working as a law clerk when she came across some medical files in a real estate case. She started investigating and learned that many people who lived in Hinkley, Calif., near a plant run by Pacific Gas & Electric were getting sick. The company used a chemical — hexavalent chromium — to prevent rust in its equipment. For more than 30 years, that chemical poisoned the drinking water. The result was a high rate of cancers, fertility problems and other health issues. She won $333 million for the community and has continued to fight to get the chemical out of drinking water across the United States.

By this time, Diane had examined the pants of Paul’s protective suit, which was stored in the basement.

“I told her that I had found that the gear itself was degrading, and I believe that was why, in my opinion, my husband had contracted cancer,” Diane told her.

We’ve launched an exciting new podcast today — The Poison Detectives — produced by Sandra Bartlett, who brought us the award-winning podcast The Salmon People.

Erin asked her a question that would propel Diane into the world of chemicals and scientific study.

“‘Do you know if the turnout gear has PFOA or PFOs?’ I said, ‘Oh God, I've never heard of that. What is it?’ And she said, ‘It's a chemical that's used in making things waterproof.’ And things started to click,” said Diane.

Lung cancer and heart attacks used to be the biggest killers of firefighters. Now it is cancers like kidney cancer, melanoma and prostate cancer. Diane set out to find out why. Along the way, Diane meets other poison detectives and together, they learn they are dealing with the monster of all chemicals.

Listen to The Poison Detectives' first episode wherever you get your podcasts. If you like what you hear, help others find us by leaving a five-star rating and a comment.

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