Firefighting Foam Lawsuits

In December 2018, a panel of judges agreed to consolidate certain federally filed firefighting foam lawsuits into one court in the District of South Carolina. These cases deal with the health effects of toxic chemicals produced by aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), a type of fire-suppressant foam commonly used on military basis and airports to fight high-hazard flammable liquid fires.

AFFFs are chemical-based firefighting substances that have been sold for decades because they are highly effective against jet fuel and petroleum fires. Yet these chemicals made with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) like perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), man-made chemicals that have been linked with serious health conditions including kidney cancer and thyroid disease, among others conditions.

Though the use of these firefighting foams has been mostly limited to military bases and airports, the foams have been found to contaminate the environment around these areas, including drinking water supplies. Military bases across the country are dealing with contamination of their drinking and groundwater, while the communities around them struggle with clean-up efforts. California alone has found contamination at 21 bases so far, including six bases where the chemicals threaten the water supply in nearby communities.

Chaffin Luhana is currently investigating cases in which individuals suffered serious health conditions after exposure to firefighting foams, or after drinking water contaminated with toxic chemicals from firefighting foams.

What Are Firefighting Foams?

Firefighting foams are used to fight certain types of fires, including fires caused by gasoline, oil, and jet fuel. The foams cool the fire while coating the fuel, preventing it from exposure to oxygen so it doesn’t combust. Made of water, foam concentrate, and air, they consist of thousands of small air-filled bubbles with a lower density than oil, gasoline, or water. When dispensed, they form an even blanket of foam over the affected area.

AFFFs work to quickly extinguish a fire and prevent it from relighting in the following ways:

  • Blanket the fuel surface, smothering the fire
  • Separate the flames/ignition source from the fuel surface
  • Cool the fuel and any adjacent surfaces
  • Suppress the release of flammable vapors that can mix with air

What Are PFAS?

PFAS are toxic chemicals that have been commercially produced since the mid-20th century. They can repel water and dirt, protect surfaces, resist heat, reduce surface tension, and more. Because of these properties, the chemicals were widely used in a variety of products for years, including:

  • Stain-resistant carpeting and furniture, including mattresses
  • Textiles
  • Paper and cardboard
  • Teflon and other non-stick cookware
  • Food packaging
  • Adhesives
  • Waterproof clothing
  • Firefighting foams
  • Surfactants in mining and oil industries

The chemicals have also been used for a range of applications in the following industries:

  • Aerospace
  • Photographic imaging
  • Semiconductor
  • Automotive
  • Construction
  • Electronics
  • Aviation

PFAS are highly resistant to degradation and can persist in the environment and the human body for long periods. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that there is widespread exposure to PFAS in the U.S. population, with PFOS, PFOA, and other similar chemicals found in the blood of nearly all people tested.

Humans may be exposed to PFAS through ingesting contaminated drinking water and seafood, inhalation of indoor air, and contact with other contaminated items.

Health Conditions Linked with Exposure to PFAS

Teflon manufacturer DuPont started using PFOA (also called C8 because it contains eight carbon molecules) in the early 1950s to improve its non-stick coating. The company continued to use the chemical, particularly at the Washington Works plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Before improved environmental laws came into effect in the 1970s, the company disposed of PFAS-containing toxic waste in drums along the banks of the Ohio River and dropped barrels of it into the open ocean.

DuPont became aware early on of the potentially toxic effects of PFOA on health but continued to use the chemical in its products. In the 1980s, through its own tests of local tap water, the company found the chemical had made its way into the drinking water supplies in both Ohio and West Virginia at potentially dangerous levels. Yet the company kept the findings secret and continued business as usual.

It wasn’t until a West Virginia cattle rancher sued DuPont in 1998 that the issue gained more widespread awareness. That plaintiff later settled with the company in 2001, but the case led to additional testing and an eventual class-action lawsuit against DuPont filed on behalf of about 80,000 people in the surrounding six water districts.

As part of the eventual settlement for that class-action lawsuit, DuPont agreed to fund a multimillion-dollar health study on PFOA. The group of independent scientists tasked with researching the chemical came to be known as the “C8 science panel.” They took seven years to conduct their research, and ultimately linked PFOA (C8) to the following:

  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Pregnancy-induced hypertension
  • High cholesterol
  • Thyroid disease
  • Testicular cancer
  • Kidney cancer

The CDC also states that PFAS exposure may:

  • Affect the immune system
  • Increase the risk of some cancers

The National Institute on Environmental Health Sciences notes that while we still have much to learn about the health effects of PFAS, studies suggest the chemicals may have potential effects on:

  • Metabolism
  • Pregnancy
  • Children’s cognition and neurobehavioral development
  • The immune system

The C8 science panel concluded that PFOA was risky at just 0.05 parts per billion in drinking water for people drinking the water for a single year. They also found that the average blood sample level from mid-Ohio Valley residents was 83 parts per billion. The average for those individuals living closest to the Washington Works plant was more than 224 parts per billion.

DuPont would go on to face thousands of more lawsuits filed by Ohio Valley residents and others. Along with other companies, Dupont has since phased out the use of PFOA and other PFAS. Manufacturers of firefighting foams, however, are currently facing a similar type of backlash for their use of PFAS.

PFAS in Firefighting Foams Contaminates Drinking Water

In the 1950s, about the same time DuPont was ramping up production of Teflon, manufacturer 3M was producing PFOA and PFOS. In the 1960s, the company supported the U.S. Navy in developing firefighting foams using PFAS, and by the 1970s, military sites, civilian airports, and firefighting training centers starting using AFFF. 3M continuing to produce the raw materials for the foams until 2002.

As awareness increased concerning Teflon-associated water contamination, so too did communities start to notice the effects of PFAS from firefighting foams. Meanwhile, 3M found through its own testing that PFAS was present in blood samples taken from its employees and that the chemicals had toxic effects.

In the year 2000, as DuPont was defending lawsuits for its mishandling of the chemicals, 3M announced it would voluntarily halt production of PFOA and PFOS, but started producing new “short-chain” PFAS formulations that were later found to be hazardous, as well.

In 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) encouraged all manufacturers to stop making long-chain PFAS, citing health risks. Though most manufacturers agreed, they continued to make new varieties of the chemicals. In 2009, the EPA issued a lifetime drinking water health advisory, recommending a maximum of 200 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOS and 400 ppt for PFOA.

In 2011, the Department of Defense reported the results of an internal study showing that nearly 600 military sites were likely to have contaminated groundwater with PFAS from firefighting foams. Military studies also showed potential health effects from exposure to firefighting foams. Shortly after, the EPA directed public water systems to test for PFAS. In 2012, the C8 science panel published their findings, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the EPA reduced its lifetime health advisory level for PFOA and PFOS to 70 ppt.

At the time of this writing, about 126 military sites had reported PFAS contamination with at least 544 drinking-water supplies in nearby communities showing levels higher than the EPA’s recommended safety limit. Of concern is the fact that these foams have been used at these locations for decades, potentially exposing nearby communities to PFAS for generations.

PFOA and PFOS are no longer manufactured or imported into the United States. The military, airports, and manufacturers have either stopped using PFOA and PFOS or are currently phasing it out. The safety of the alternatives they’re using, however, remains unknown.

In 2019, the EPA created an action plan to eradicate PFOA and PFOS from drinking water, which includes developing groundwater cleanup recommendations at contaminated sites and using enforcement actions to help manage PFAS risk where appropriate.

Types of Injuries Associated with Firefighting Foams

Based on studies, injuries associated with exposure to firefighting foams and PFAS-contaminated drinking water include:

  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Pregnancy-induced hypertension
  • High cholesterol
  • Thyroid disease
  • Testicular cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Other types of cancer
  • Childhood development problems

U.S. military firefighters and firefighters assigned to airports may be at particular risk because of their closeness to the chemical-laden foams and their frequent use of them. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs recently warned veterans about the increased risk of cancer and other health effects linked with exposure to firefighting foams.

Study Find Evidence of PFAS and Cancer in Firefighters

Recent studies have suggested that firefighters are particularly at risk of exposure to PFAS chemicals and the resulting potential health dangers.

A scientific review published in October 2019, for instance, found evidence that firefighters using firefighting foams made with PFAS had “unacceptably” high levels of PFAS, including PFOS and PFHxS. The latter is another type of PFAS known to be persistent in the environment and the human body and to be potentially even more hazardous than PFOS.

Study results also showed that firefighters could be exposed to these dangerous chemicals not only from firefighting foams, but through exposure to contaminated personal protective equipment, handling of contaminated equipment, and when managing PFAS foam wastes.

In another study published in February 2020, researchers compared blood levels of PFAS in female firefighters compared with office workers in San Francisco. Results showed that the firefighters had higher concentrations of PFAS, including PFNA, PFOA, PFDA, and PFUnDA.

Firefighting Foam Lawsuits

3M, Tyco Fire products, Chemguard, and other manufacturers currently face hundreds of lawsuits filed by plaintiffs who allege PFAS contaminated local groundwater. The suits have been brought by individuals, municipal and private water utilities, local authorities, and industrial plants.  Many of these cases were consolidated into the District Court for the District of South Carolina in December 2018.

Other lawsuits alleging health effects from firefighting foams were not included in the multi-district litigation (MDL), but are pending in other courts. The plaintiffs claim that 3M and other manufacturers failed to warn about the potential health and environmental risks associated with their products.

If you were exposed to PFAS via firefighting foams or drinking water contaminated with toxins from firefighting foams and were later diagnosed with cancer or other serious related health conditions, you may be eligible to file a firefighting foam lawsuit to recover damages. Chaffin Luhana is now investigating these cases and invites you to call today at 888-480-1123.