When per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) were first introduced to the world in the 1940s, they were viewed as wonder chemicals. Because of their ability to repel oil and water, they were adopted by various industries and soon became essential to the manufacture of Teflon nonstick products, stains, paints, cleaning products, food packaging and firefighting foams.
But their invulnerability to water and oil is a sign of their indestructability in other contexts — for example, the human body. And this resistance to breakdown is troubling for another reason. In recent years, health and environmental agencies like the CDC and EPA have sounded the alarm about the high concentration of PFAS in public drinking water and evidence that these ‘forever molecules’ are carcinogenic.
If their presence is troubling to those exposed to them through environmental factors, then it is 10 times as troubling for firefighters, many of whom have been required to use PFAS-containing aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) for the past 60 years.
Source: WikipediaInjuries Linked to Firefighting Foam
Firefighting foam has been used since the 1950s, and has been the standard at military bases and airports due to its effectiveness in extinguishing jet fuel and petroleum fires. But signs of toxicity prompted original AFFF manufacturer 3M to phase out its production of a key PFAS used for firefighting foam starting in 2000.
It took U.S. airports until 2018 to stop requiring that their firefighters use foam. The U.S. military is only now phasing out the use of certain PFAS in firefighting foam, to be replaced with a chemically-distinct foam that may pose many of the same risks.
Persistent exposure to these chemicals has been linked to many different types of cancer, as well as other life-altering conditions. For the many civilian and military firefighters who have used these products for decades, in high concentrations and even for training exercises, these unsafe chemicals have had devastating effects.
Cancers that have been linked to exposure to PFAS include:
- Kidney cancer
- Testicular cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Bladder cancer
- Neuroendocrine tumors
- Prostate cancer
- Liver cancer
- Breast cancer
There are also many other harmful conditions linked with PFAS:
- Liver damage
- Thyroid disease
- Decreased fertility
- High cholesterol
- Hormone suppression
How AFFF-Caused Cancers May Be Tied to Product Liability
Firefighters aren’t on their own in trying to clean up the mess left behind by waterborne AFFF. In 2010, the Minnesota attorney general went after 3M for its decades-long coverup of AFFF’s toxicity, court-ordering the release of documents which showed that 3M knew about the compound’s effects on the immune system dating back to the 1970s. The suit settled in 2018 for $850 million.
This is a clear example of a failure to warn the users of a product about its dangers. If firefighting organizations had known the risks of using AFFF when its makers knew them, they would likely have taken steps to avoid the exposure their members have since suffered.
Even After Risks Were Known, Employers Behaved Unconscionably
The military has responded to public and EPA health concerns regarding PFAS contamination of public drinking water from nearby military bases — in 2016, the Air Force paid $4.3 million for a water treatment plant near Colorado Springs to reduce exposure to contaminated water.
Officials at the time said that they did this as a “good neighbor gesture,” not as an admission of fault. But a Navy research report from 1974 took issue with the idea that AFFF was non-toxic, saying “practically anything undrinkable by humans is unfit to discharge over the side into the sea” and instead suggesting the use of foam made of glycerin and water.
When 3M stopped manufacturing firefighting foam, the U.S. military and airport authorities again had an opportunity to reconsider their stance on the agent. Instead they continued to source the compound from other chemical companies. In doing so, they negligently exposed firefighters to unreasonable harm, which may be the basis for a toxic tort lawsuit.
Source: U.S. Air Force Website
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