Firefighters May Be at Risk for Cancer, Other Problems from Firefighting Foams

An Indiana firefighter alleges in a new product liability lawsuit that he developed testicular cancer after being regularly exposed to toxic chemicals in firefighting foams during training and service as a military and civilian firefighter. The lawsuit was filed by Terry Hill in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, and names as defendants more than a dozen manufacturing companies, including 3M Company; Dynax Corporation; Buckey Fire Equipment Company; Tyco Fire Products LP; Chemguard, Inc.; Chubb Fire, Ltd.; Chemours Company FC, LLC; National Foam, Inc.; Kidde PLC; Corteva, Inc.; Du Pont De Nemours Inc.; UTC Fire & Security Americas Corporation, Inc.; E.I. Du Pont De Nemours and Company; The Chemours Company; Kidde-Fenwal, Inc.; and United Technologies Corporation.

What are PFAS Chemicals?

3M Company, Chemguard, Inc. and Tyco Fire Products already face dozens of firefighting foam lawsuits filed on behalf of individuals and municipalities across the country, each involving similar allegations that polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), have contaminated water sources nationwide. PFAS are man-made chemical compounds that are not naturally occurring in the environment. These synthetic chemicals are useful in repelling grease, oil and water and have been used in popular consumer and household products for years, including carpet, clothing, cardboard packaging, popcorn bags and protective coatings on cookware, as well as in firefighting foams, or aqueous film forming foam (AFFF).

Groundwater Contamination from Firefighting Foams

In the 1970’s, the Department of Defense began using AFFF to fight fuel fires and the foams were regularly used for decades at military bases nationwide during routine fire extinguishing exercises. In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency classified PFAS as an “emerging contaminant” and linked the chemicals to liver cancer and other serious health problems. Since then, the government has identified PFAS pollutants at levels above federal health guidelines in the groundwater and soil at more than 90 military bases nationwide. In California alone, there is contamination at 21 bases, including six bases where the water supply in nearby communities is threatened by the toxic chemicals. Nationwide, the chemicals have been found at a total of 401 former and current military bases.

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, the chemicals used in firefighting foams can contaminate well water and drinking water supplies. When they are released into the environment, they can remain in the air, food and soil and are projected to take thousands of years to degrade. In fact, PFAS are often referred to as “forever chemicals,” because they can persist indefinitely in the ground and water. They can also be absorbed into people’s blood and build up in their bodies for years. According to previous studies from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), PFAS chemicals are primarily absorbed into the blood, liver and kidneys and the agency predicts that they are in the bloodstream of roughly 98% of Americans.

Potential Side Effects of PFAS Exposure

Firefighting foams are a major contributor to PFAS contamination of groundwater on and around military bases because the foams contain high concentrations of the chemicals, which are designed to create a film that cools the fire and coats the fuel, thereby preventing it from coming into contact with oxygen. Serious concerns have been raised in recent years about the potential health risks associated with exposure to firefighting foams and the potential for PFAS chemicals to cause major health problems among firefighters and others exposed to the chemicals. According to reports, among the possible side effects of exposure to PFAS are liver and kidney damage, an increased risk of asthma, an increased risk of thyroid disease, pregnancy complications, decreased fertility, lower birth weights and cancer.

Manufacturers Accused of Failure to Warn

In his product liability lawsuit, Terry Hill claims that exposure to toxic chemicals in firefighting foams caused him to develop testicular cancer. He also alleges that the manufacturers of these foams knew about the potential risks associated with their products, yet failed to disclose these risks to firefighters and other individuals exposed to the products on a regular basis. According to Hill, he was never notified about the potential health risks of firefighting foam, nor was he ever told to wear special gear to protect him against exposure to the foam. “PFAS are highly toxic and carcinogenic chemicals. Defendants knew, or should have known, that PFAS remain in the human body while presenting significant health risks to humans,” Hill’s lawsuit states. “Plaintiff was unaware of the dangerous properties of the Defendants’ AFFF products and relied on the Defendants’ instructions as to the proper handling of the products.”