Firefighter Foam - Consumer Justice Foundation

Firefighter Foam

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Firefighters, U.S. military servicemembers, airport workers and others exposed to dangerous chemicals in firefighter foams or aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) solutions may face an increased risk of thyroid disease and testicular, kidney and bladder cancers caused by the accumulation of the toxic chemicals in the body.

Firefighting foam cancer lawsuits are being investigated by attorneys nationwide due to the use of potentially toxic aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) solutions. Those at the greatest risk for cancer from firefighting foam are firefighters with the U.S. military and firefighters assigned to airports that routinely used AFFF. The U.S. Navy and other branches of the military used the foam extensively for roughly 50 years, including for emergency events, testing and training exercises, and up until 2018, commercial airports were required to use the foam in compliance with U.S. Navy guidelines. The toxic chemicals in firefighter foam can also contaminate well water and drinking water supplies, which means communities where firefighting foam was used by the local fire department during training or fire suppression and those near U.S. military bases may also be at risk for cancer or other serious side effects. If you or a loved one sustained long-term occupational exposure to firefighter foam and subsequently developed cancer, you may qualify for compensation through a firefighter foam lawsuit. Contact our consumer advocates at Consumer Justice Foundation today to learn more about pursuing a legal claim for injuries from firefighting foam.

What is Firefighter Foam?

A synthetic foam used by fire departments, the U.S. military and commercial airports to suppress petroleum-based fires that has been linked to an increased risk of cancers and other serious side effects.

Firefighter or firefighting foams, also known as aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) solutions, are foam products commonly used by firefighters for fire suppression purposes. Firefighter foam was invented in 1902 by a Russian engineer and chemist and has been used for decades in the United States, to rapidly extinguish petroleum-based fires. Synthetic AFFFs are water-based solutions that contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) like perfluorooctane acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). PFAS are a family of manmade chemical compounds found in a wide variety of common household products, such as cleaning products, nonstick cookware, paints, waxes, polishes and even water-resistant clothing. PFAS-based firefighting foam has been used for decades by the U.S. military, local fire departments, commercial airports, and the oil and gas industry, because of its effectiveness in suppressing and extinguishing jet fuel and petroleum fires by cutting off the fuel from the oxygen it needs to burn. The foam was also used extensively in firefighting training on U.S. military bases nationwide. Chemguard, a manufacturer of AFFF, states on its website that the foams “combine fluoro- and hydrocarbon-surfactant technologies to provide superior fire and vapor suppression for Class B, hydrocarbon fuel fires.” The company claims that “These concentrates also have excellent wetting properties that can effectively combat Class A fires and may be used in conjunction with dry chemical agents to provide even greater fire suppression performance.” What the company doesn’t say is that exposure to the chemicals in AFFF may cause cancer.

Side Effects Leading to a Firefighter Foam Lawsuit

PFAS can be orally ingested, inhaled through exposure in the atmosphere or absorbed through the skin, and certain PFAS can accumulate in blood and tissues in the human body and stay there for long periods of time. As a matter of fact, these chemicals are often referred to as “forever” chemicals because they do not break down over time and they can also be carried over great distances by wind or rain. The Department of Defense (DoD) has used PFAS in the military since the 1970s, with the introduction of AFFF for fuel firefighting purposes. Unfortunately, research shows that long-term exposure to PFAS, in high concentrations, is linked to an increased risk of potentially life-threatening side effects, including the following:

  • Testicular cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Bladder cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Thyroid disease
  • Leukemia
  • Lymphoma
  • Neuroendocrine tumors

Some studies looking at the health effects of exposure to PFAS have shown that the chemicals may also increase cholesterol levels, interfere with the body’s hormones and affect the immune system. The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR) warns that certain PFAS may decrease how well the body responds to vaccines, decrease fertility in women, lower infant birth weights and increase the risk of serious conditions like high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in women.

Link Between Firefighter Foam and Cancer

There have been growing concerns about the negative effects of AFFF on the environment and human health, due to the durable nature of PFAS, which do not break down over time. There is a potential for prolonged exposure to PFAS in firefighter foam solutions, in high concentrations, to result in a buildup of the substances in the body, which can have adverse health consequences for exposed individuals. PFOA, one of the two main chemicals found in AFFF, has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as possibly carcinogenic in humans. As a result of occupational exposure to PFAS in AFFF, firefighters may face an elevated risk of cancer and other potentially life-threatening side effects.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the American Cancer Society have all suggested that there is evidence that exposure to certain PFAS may be linked to an increased risk of cancer in firefighters. In fact, it was way back in 2012 that the EPA identified PFOA and PFOS as “emerging contaminants,” or chemicals characterized by a “perceived, potential or real threat to human health or the environment or by a lack of published health standards.” And research published in 2009 and 2010 warned that exposure to PFOA and PFOS may disrupt fertility and increase the risk of thyroid disease in humans. The chemicals have even been found in the breast milk of mothers exposed to high concentrations of PFAS. Sadly, residents of the communities in which firefighter foam was used may also be at risk for toxic exposure to PFAS from AFFF runoff, which can move through soil and contaminate well water, groundwater and drinking water supplies.

Wastewater treatment plants, manufacturing facilities, fuel-spill sites and military bases have all been identified as sources of PFAS contamination from AFFF and the communities nearby locations such as these have suffered adverse health consequences and damages to property and natural resources as a result of PFAS exposure. In 2019, the DoD identified a whopping 401 sites on active and former military bases and National Guard facilities with potentially harmful levels of PFAS contamination, and that number continues to grow. Since 2016, the DoD only uses AFFF on ships and in response to emergency events on land and the agency reports that it “treats each use of AFFF as a spill response to limit environmental effects.” Unfortunately, firefighter foam was used for decades at locations across the U.S. and because the chemicals in the foam don’t break down over time, they are still present in people’s bodies, in the environment and in drinking water sources.

Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs

The Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado is one of the locations where testing of on-base and community water sources showed levels that were significantly higher than the EPA’s recommended limit for PFAS or PFOA exposure. In 2019, former Army specialist Mark Favors testified about the dangers of PAFS chemicals at a hearing held by the House Oversight and Reform Environment Subcommittee. “Colorado Health Department investigators found that lung, bladder and kidney cancer rates are significantly higher than expected in the same areas of the PFAS water contamination, yet the state has never offered contaminated residents medical monitoring or PFAS blood level tests,” said Favors, who testified on behalf of the Fountain Valley (Colorado) Clean Water Coalition. Favors’ extended family lives near the Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs and there are 16 cases of cancer in his family, including 10 deaths, five of which were from kidney cancer.

Lawsuits Against Firefighter Foam

September 2016 – A federal class action lawsuit is filed against six manufacturers of firefighting foam on behalf of residents living near military bases in eastern Pennsylvania where AFFF was used. The lawsuit alleges that residents in those communities were exposed to high levels of PFOA and PFOS in their drinking water for decades without their knowledge.

February 2018 – A lawsuit is filed against three AFFF manufacturers (3M Company, Chemguard Inc. and Tyco Fire Products L.P.) by the city of Westfield in Massachusetts, where the firefighter foam was used for decades at Barnes Air National Guard Base and the Westfield-Barned Regional Airport.

April 2018 – Ninety-two people file a class action lawsuit against 3M, Tyco Fire Products and National Foam Inc., alleging that the manufacturers knew the chemicals in AFFF were highly soluble and could cause serious health effects in humans, as well as contaminate water supplies. The lawsuit seeks damages in the amount of $5 million.

June 2018 – The State of New York files a lawsuit against six companies that make AFFF, alleging that the companies knew or should have known about the toxic effects of PFOA and PFOS, which have been detected at several locations across the state, including Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh and Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach.

October 2018 – The city of Dayton files a federal lawsuit against several AFFF manufacturers, calling for the companies to cover the cost of cleaning up the chemicals that have contaminated the city’s water supply.

March 2019 – The State of New Jersey files four claims for natural resource damages against 3M, DuPont, Chemours and other companies relating to PFAS contamination.

May 2019 – The State of New Jersey files a lawsuit against companies that manufactured and sold firefighter foam products for decades “despite knowing those products released toxic and harmful chemicals into the environment.”

August 2019 – More than 100 lawsuits involving AFFF products and their alleged contamination of groundwater and drinking water supplies are consolidated into a multidistrict litigation (MDL) in South Carolina. Defendants in the cases include both AFFF manufacturers, the U.S. government and various federal entities that ordered the foams to be used.

2020 – The federal MDL is comprised of approximately 500 firefighter foam lawsuits, with additional cases expected to be filed or transferred to the court in the coming months.

Firefighter Foam Exposure and Adverse Effect Warnings

May 2012 – The EPA identifies PFOS and PFOA as “emerging contaminants,” which are chemicals characterized by a “perceived, potential or real threat to human health or the environment or by a lack of published health standards.”

October 2015 – The ATSDR reports that “People exposed to high levels [of PFAS] may have increased risk of kidney cancer or testicular cancer.”

January 2016 – The American Cancer Society reports that “Studies in lab animals have found exposure to PFOA increases the risk of certain tumors of the liver, testicles, mammary glands (breasts), and pancreas.”

2018 – A federal inquiry reveals that PFAS are more dangerous than previously reported.

December 2018 – The EPA states that “Both [PFOA and PFOS] chemicals are very persistent in the environment and in the human body – meaning they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time. There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse human health effects.”

February 2019 – The EPA issues drinking water health advisories for PFOA and PFOS, recommending an exposure limit of 70 parts per trillion level of the chemicals in drinking water.

July 2019 – The Department of Defense creates a task force to determine the extent of PFAS contamination on U.S. military bases and the potential health risks to military personnel and families caused by harmful chemicals used in firefighting foam. The task force also seeks to mitigate and eliminate the use of AFFF, and to clean up sites with possible PFAS contamination.

January 2020 – The ATSDR publishes a report on the potential health effects of PFAS exposure, indicating that it can: “interfere with the body’s natural hormones, increase cholesterol levels, affect the immune system and increase the risk of some cancers.”

March 2020 – The DoD’s PFAS task force issues a progress report in which it indicates that “the consolidated inventory of DoD and National Guard installations where the Department is performing an assessment of PFAS use or potential release has increased from 401 to 651 as of the end of FY 2019.”

Studies Linking Firefighter Foam to Cancer, Other Side Effects

May 2009 – A study published in the journal Human Reproduction suggests that “PFOA and PFOS exposure at plasma levels seen in the general population may reduce fecundity,” or the ability to produce offspring in humans.

May 2010Research from the UK indicates that “Higher concentrations of serum PFOA and PFOS are associated with current thyroid disease in the U.S. general adult population.”

July 2012 – The journal Environmental Research publishes a study suggesting that “continued human exposure to even relatively low concentrations of PFOA in drinking water results in elevated body burdens that may increase the risk of health effects.”

November 2012 – A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology finds that there is evidence of “positive exposure-response trends for malignant and nonmalignant renal disease” among workers exposed to PFOA at a DuPont chemical plant in West Virginia.

March 2013 – Another analysis of the relationship between PFOA exposure and cancer among residents living near the DuPont Teflon-manufacturing plant in West Virginia finds that “higher PFOA serum levels may be associated with testicular, kidney, prostate, and ovarian cancers and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.”

May 2015 – PFOA exposure among workers is positively linked to ulcerative colitis and rheumatoid arthritis in a study published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Nov-Dec 2019 – Researchers from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia assess the health outcomes of Mid-Ohio Valley residents who were exposed to PFOA in drinking water while living near a chemical plant. They find that “PFOA exposure was associated with kidney and testicular cancer in this population.”

February 2020 – The U.S. Fire Administration issues a report titled “The hidden dangers in firefighting foam,” warning that “long-term exposure to PFAS/PFOA/PFOS, in high concentrations, causes a buildup in the body [which] may have negative health effects like a risk of thyroid disease and testicular, kidney and bladder cancers.”

Why We Think Manufacturers of Firefighter Foam Should Be Held Liable

For years, companies like 3M, Chemguard, Chemours, National Foam, Tyco Fire Products, United Technologies Corp., the Buckeye Fire Protection Co., Angus Fire and The Ansul Co. manufactured firefighting foam and sold it to the U.S. military and civilians for use at airports and other sites. A growing number of firefighter foam lawsuits filed in state and federal courts across the country accuse these companies of allegedly:

  • Knowing about the potential for the chemicals in AFFF to adversely affect human health and the environment
  • Knowing that PFAS are persistent and harmful when released into the environment
  • Deceiving fire departments and government agencies about the toxic nature of their products
  • Failing to warn users that exposure to the chemicals in firefighting foam could lead to various cancers
  • Continuing to manufacture, market and sell their firefighter foam products despite these risks

Claims have also been brought against the U.S. government for instructing the military and commercial airports to use AFFF. The firefighting foam lawsuits seek damages for personal injury, the need for medical monitoring, property damage and other economic losses related to the presence of PFAS chemicals in the foam products, including the cost of remediation in areas affected by AFFF contamination.

What should you do? If you have been diagnosed with cancer or another side effect from firefighter foam and exposure to toxic PFAS chemicals, you should contact a lawyer as soon as possible to discuss filing a firefighter foam lawsuit.

Exposure to harmful PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam has allegedly adversely affected firefighters and current and former members of the U.S. military and their loved ones, as well as the communities surrounding U.S. military bases and other sites where AFFF was used. Unfortunately, the DoD has been unable to find a fluorine-free foam solution that is effective as AFFF and does not contain PFAS or pose a risk to human health. And while PFOA and PFOS are no longer made in the United States, they are still made in other countries and could potentially still affect consumers in the U.S. in the form of AFFF. If you have been diagnosed with testicular cancer, bladder cancer or another type of cancer and you believe allegedly toxic firefighting foam to be the cause, don’t wait to contact an attorney. You may have grounds to file a firefighter foam lawsuit against the foam manufacturer, in order to pursue the financial compensation you deserve for your injuries.

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