While firefighters, military and civilian, encounter an abundance of toxins as a natural consequence of their duties, it appears that their own equipment has been putting them at an increased risk of developing cancer. The Aqueous Film-Forming Foam that firefighters rely on to extinguish blazes contains cancer-causing chemicals and has been an increasing cause for concern. This has prompted the military to provide blood tests to active-duty firefighters to ascertain their potential exposure to this dangerous class of chemicals.
The results of this testing campaign demonstrate the need for further inquiry into the risks that firefighters are subject to as a result of using PFAS-containing products like AFFF firefighting foam. Should these investigations yield additional evidence of a causal relationship between the presence of forever chemicals in firefighters’ blood and serious health issues like cancer, that could drastically alter the way that the VA disability claims process regards PFAS exposure and allow veterans greater access to the benefits they deserve.
Our team at LLN is heavily invested in helping firefighters obtain the compensation they are entitled to receive. We can help you understand what your legal options are for securing compensation for your medical bills, reduced earning capacity, pain and suffering, and more.
Military Investigates Firefighters’ Occupational Exposure to PFAS
A number of product liability lawsuits have already been filed by firefighters, airport workers, military service members, and communities in an Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF) multidistrict litigation. These AFFF firefighting foam lawsuits are currently targeting chemical manufacturers like 3M and DuPont for plaintiffs’ damages, but the military has also played a significant role in facilitating exposure to forever chemicals via AFFF as one of its primary users.
To address growing concerns about military personnel’s exposure to potentially cancer-causing per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), particularly in AFFF, Congress ordered the Department of Defense (DoD) to provide active duty firefighters with a blood test to assess the level of these chemicals in their systems. Of the 10,208 DoD firefighters who were offered a blood test for PFAS, 9,104 agreed. Forever chemicals, more commonly known as PFAS, are a group of man-made chemicals that have been used to make water, heat, and grease-resistant products, as well as effective fire suppressants.
The Department of Defense Blood Test and PFAS Levels in Servicemen and Women
The DoD blood test evaluated participants' levels of PFAS including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), perfluoroheptanoic acid (PFHpA), and perfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS). As PFAS accumulate in the body and don’t break down, they can function as endocrine disruptors, increasing the individual’s risk of developing cancer.
Although cases of cancer related to PFAS water contamination near military bases imply the harmful impact of AFFF firefighting foam is not limited to the service members who handle it directly, this research specifically focuses on active duty and reserve firefighters.
What the Department of Defense Blood Testing Reveals About Cancer Risk For Firefighters
Our understanding of forever chemicals is developing by the day, and it seems clear that high levels of exposure likely play a role in an individual’s risk of developing certain cancers, as well as other health issues like hypertension during pregnancy and high cholesterol. Researchers are still defining what qualifies as a “high” concentration of PFAS, but the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) has recommended that individuals with PFAS levels of 20 ng/mL and higher should undergo additional assessment for cancer and other conditions associated with PFAS exposure.
Military Firefighter PFAS Blood Test Results
The NAS also stipulates that patients with PFAS levels between 2 and 20 ng/mL are still at an elevated risk for adverse health effects like thyroid issues and breast cancer. An analysis of the DoD’s blood test report shows that the average exposure levels for the top forever chemicals found among the active duty firefighters included:
- PFOS at 3.1 ng/mL
- PFHxS at 2.8 ng/mL
- PFOA at 1.1 ng/mL
- PFNA at 0.42 ng/mL
The VA specifically notes that the presence of PFAS in a service member’s blood sample does not inform the source or length of their exposure, nor can it be exclusively used to predict the likelihood of future health issues. Nor is the presence of PFAS in the service members’ blood samples an automatic cause for concern, as the CDC estimates that virtually every American has detectible levels of PFAS in their blood from everyday exposure.
However, these seemingly low averages are not the full picture of the firefighters' PFAS exposure. Some of the firefighters had astronomical levels of PFAS in their blood, with certain PFAS chemicals measuring in at 150 ng/mL, well over the threshold for conducting additional testing.
With the health risk to personnel still somewhat ambiguous, the Department of Defense has begun the process of phasing out AFFF firefighting foam while working to formulate a comparably effective alternative. The Air Force has indicated that it is on track to be in compliance with the DoD ban on AFFF by the end of 2024.
How the VA is Dealing With AFFF Firefighting Foam Cancer Claims
Despite mounting evidence that PFAS-laden firefighting foam is carcinogenic, the VA does not recognize cancer from exposure to PFAS through AFFF firefighting foam as a presumptive condition. Instead, the VA is making determinations on a case-by-case basis. While this approach does not necessarily preclude a veteran from pursuing VA benefits in a veterans disability claim, it does require additional effort to establish that their cancer is a service-related injury.
Further, the VA has yet to recommend a blood test for PFAS to active duty service members, citing its limited capacity for screening purposes and informing treatment paths. Activists have been critical of this reluctance to acknowledge the risks of PFAS exposure tied to military service and have called on the government to act. Despite the efforts of Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI) and others to pass the Veterans Exposed to Toxic PFAS Act, further efforts to instruct the VA to automatically consider illnesses from PFAS exposure to be service-related injuries have stalled in Congress.
For many, the government’s reticence to explicitly label exposure to PFAS as a risk to military personnel is reminiscent of the years-long delay in admitting military families suffered unsafe levels of exposure to toxins from water contamination at Camp Lejeune or that veterans were subject to hazardous conditions from sources like toxic burn pits. The PACT Act of 2022 eventually helped provide these groups with pathways to compensation for their injuries, but the hope is that a growing scientific consensus about the dangers of PFAS exposure will motivate more prompt bureaucratic and legislative action on this issue.
Contact an Experienced Personal Injury Attorney About Your AFFF Firefighting Foam Lawsuit
While the VA and Congress work to determine how VA claims involving occupational PFAS exposure will be handled, the AFFF firefighting foam lawsuits have evolved into a mass tort issue in the form of a multidistrict litigation against the product’s manufacturers. The scale of the case and the extensive resources of the AFFF defendants require specialized experience, considerable investigative skills, and a high level of commitment.
Claims based on emerging health threats like PFAS necessitate the type of comprehensive and robust legal representation we offer at LLN. As seasoned AFFF firefighting foam attorneys, our team at LLN is highly qualified to advocate for the compensation you deserve for your medical bills, lost wages, emotional distress, and other damages resulting from your PFAS-related illness.
Whether you are looking to pursue a veterans disability claim with the VA or an AFFF firefighting foam lawsuit, our team is prepared to meet the challenge. Schedule a free consultation with us to learn more about how our services can benefit you, what damages you may be eligible to receive compensation for, and what your rights are as the injured party in an AFFF firefighting foam claim.