Toxic Chemicals from Firefighting Foam Build Up in Firefighters’ Bodies, Study Warns

New research supports previous findings that exposure to aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) can cause toxic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) to build up in firefighters’ bodies over time, possibly increasing their risk of cancer and other serious health problems. The researchers involved in the study also noted that PFAS levels in volunteer firefighters, who account for more than 65% of all firefighters in the United States – were higher than those in the general population, and that the longer the firefighter’s service career, the higher the levels of PFAS in the firefighter’s blood. If you or someone you love was diagnosed with prostate cancer, kidney cancer, bladder cancer or another type of cancer after being exposed to PFAS in firefighting foam, contact us today to discuss your options. You may be able to file a firefighting foam lawsuit against the chemical manufacturer in order to pursue financial compensation for your injuries.

Possible Side Effects of PFAS Exposure

PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that have been used in the manufacturing industry for decades because of their ability to resist heat, water, stains, and grease. The chemicals are also found in firefighting foam, or AFFF, which has been widely used in the U.S. during firefighter training exercises and to fight fuel-based fires on military bases and at commercial airports. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicates that PFAS manufacturing and processing facilities, airports and military bases that use firefighting foam are some of the most common sources of PFAS in the U.S. In recent years however, concerns have been raised about the potential side effects of exposure to PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam, as the chemicals have been linked to a range of adverse health effects, including:

  • Cancer
  • Liver damage
  • High cholesterol
  • Fertility problems
  • Thyroid disease
  • Obesity
  • Hormone suppression

PFAS Chemicals Accumulate in Firefighters’ Bodies

This new firefighting foam study was published in April in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, and is the first to assess the potential health risks volunteer firefighters face from PFAS chemicals found in firefighting foam and protective gear. PFAS like perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) are known as “forever” chemicals because they persist in the environment and can accumulate and remain in the human body for long periods of time. The EPA has a page dedicated to basic information about PFAS on its website, which states that “There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans.” According to the EPA, the most studied PFAS are PFOA and PFOS, both of which can cause immunological, reproductive, developmental, liver and kidney problems in laboratory animals. Exposure to the chemicals has also been linked to cancer (PFOA), thyroid hormone disruption (PFOS), and low infant birth weights.

In order to examine the adverse health outcomes associated with PFAS exposure, researchers from Rutgers University looked at PFAS serum levels among members of a volunteer fire department in New Jersey. “High PFAS levels have been demonstrated among career firefighters;” the researchers wrote, “less is known about PFAS levels among volunteer firefighters who comprise two-thirds of U.S. firefighters.” The researchers compared the levels of nine PFAS chemicals found in blood samples provided by the volunteer firefighters to PFAS levels recorded in the general population in the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. They found that two PFAS chemicals – perfluorododecanoic acid (PFDoA) and perfluorodecanoic acid (PFDA) – were present at higher levels in volunteer firefighters compared to the general public. In fact, they determined that while PFDoA was present in 80% of firefighters, it was almost nonexistent in the general population.

Risk May be Highest Among Volunteer Firefighters

“The primary cause of line-of duty death among firefighters are heart attacks. They also get and die from many types of cancer more often than other people,” said lead study author Judith Graber in a Rutgers University press release. “More than 95 percent of the U.S. population have these chemicals to some degree in their bodies, but firefighters have heightened exposure to PFAS through their protective gear and fire suppression foam and the burning materials they encounter that release particles, which can be inhaled or settle on gear and skin.” Notably, the Rutgers University researchers found a correlation between the length of a firefighter’s career and the level of PFAS chemicals in their blood, meaning the longer a firefighter serves, the greater the extent of their exposure to PFAS. This is of particular concern for volunteer firefighters, who, as Graber says, are always on call and could therefore accrue more years of PFAS exposure than career firefighters.