Firefighters at Risk Due to Foam Laced with Toxic Forever Chemicals

Firefighters at Risk Due to Foam Laced with Toxic Forever Chemicals
Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF)

Firefighters face a hidden danger that lingers long after the flames are extinguished. The foam they use to save lives and property – known as firefighting foam or Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) – is putting their health at risk. 

AFFF contains toxic forever chemicals that do not break down. They remain in the human body and the environment indefinitely, raising concerns about long-term health impacts on firefighters and entire communities.

The use of AFFF has become a pressing issue in recent years as researchers uncover more about the potential health risks associated with these chemicals. Fire departments across the country now grapple with balancing effective firefighting techniques with protecting the health of their personnel and the environment.

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Understanding AFFF and Forever Chemicals

Understanding AFFF and Forever Chemicals

AFFF has been a staple in firefighting since the 1960s, prized for its ability to quickly smother fuel fires. The foam creates a blanket that cuts off the fire’s oxygen supply and prevents re-ignition. However, the key ingredients that make AFFF so effective are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a family of synthetic chemicals often referred to as "forever chemicals" for their resistance to break down naturally and accumulate over time. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that PFAS can be found in the blood of animals and almost every person worldwide, as well as in food, water, and soil.

PFAS were first developed in the 1940s by chemists at 3M Company and DuPont. The discovery was accidental – in 1938, Roy Plunkett, a chemist at DuPont, was developing a new refrigerant when he stumbled upon polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), which DuPont would later trademark as Teflon.

These chemicals could repel both water and oil while resisting heat and chemical reactions.

The unique properties of PFAS led to their widespread use in various industries and consumer products, including:

  • Non-stick cookware
  • Water-resistant clothing and fabrics
  • Food packaging
  • Stain-resistant carpets and furniture
  • Cosmetics and personal care products

PFAS-based firefighting foam emerged in the 1960s when The U.S. Navy collaborated with 3M Company to develop a more effective way to combat fuel fires on ships and aircraft carriers.

Researchers found that AFFF proved remarkably effective at suppressing dangerous fires quickly, leading to its widespread adoption in both military and civilian firefighting. Firefighters started using AFFF to combat aircraft fires at airports throughout the U.S. 

The very properties that made PFAS so useful – their stability and resistance to breaking down – are now recognized as monumental environmental and health concerns. 

The Health Risks of AFFF

Exposure to PFAS is linked to several adverse health problems. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), studies have shown that PFAS exposure may:

  • Increase cholesterol levels
  • Decrease vaccine response in children
  • Promote certain cancers, including kidney and liver cancer
  • Interfere with natural hormones
  • Affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and children
  • Compromise immune system function

The Heartbreaking Toll of AFFF on Firefighters

The health risks for firefighters repeatedly exposed to AFFF throughout their careers are especially troubling. A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that firefighters had higher levels of PFAS in their blood than the general population.

According to the International Association of Firefighters, Cancer caused the death of nearly three-fourths of active-duty fighters in 2023. Another study found that smoke exposure and inhalation are the cause of cancer in 4% of firefighters on active duty. Even firefighters with no family history of cancer are now finding themselves battling cancer – an alarming trend that many researchers blame on the widespread use of PFAS in the firefighting industry.

The chemical industry has developed safer firefighting foams, and many states have banned or restricted AFFF usage, but thousands of gallons of AFFF remain in fire stations throughout the U.S. 

The same water-repelling qualities that made PFAS so effective in firefighting foam have also made it effective in firefighting gear. The turnout gear used in firefighting has been treated with PFAS for decades, stoking fears that firefighters absorb carcinogenic PFAS when they fight fires. PFAS can enter the body through the skin.

Firefighting Foam’s Toxic Environmental Impact 

AFFF doesn't just affect firefighters. When the foam is deployed, it can seep into the ground, contaminating soil and groundwater. This contamination can spread far beyond the original site of use, creating a wide-ranging environmental problem.

A recent report from the Environmental Working Group report identified 1,477 locations in 49 states with known PFAS contamination. Many of these sites are near military bases or airports where AFFF has been used extensively for training and emergency response.

PFAS and Widespread Water Contamination

One of the most significant environmental concerns surrounding the widespread use of AFFF is the contamination of water sources. PFAS from the firefighting foam can easily migrate through soil and into groundwater, potentially affecting drinking water supplies. 

A recent study published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters estimated that 200 million Americans could have PFAS in their drinking water at concentrations of 1 part per trillion (1 ppt) or higher, breaching the threshold considered safe by some health and environmental researchers. 

Waterbody contamination also affects aquatic ecosystems. Research has shown that PFAS can accumulate in fish and other aquatic organisms, potentially disrupting food chains and biodiversity.

AFFF Contamination of Soil and Plants

AFFF contaminates soil and can have long-lasting effects on agriculture and ecosystems. Many plant varieties absorb PFAS from contaminated soil, potentially contaminating the food chain even further.

A study published in the Journal of Environmental Quality found that some crops, particularly leafy greens, can accumulate significant levels of PFAS when grown in contaminated soil.

Airborne AFFF Fireghting Foam Particles Pose Health Risks

While PFAS are primarily known for contaminating water and soil, they can also become airborne. AFFF spray can create a mist that carries PFAS particles into the air. Firefighters can inhale particles or the wind can carry and deposit them elsewhere, extending the reach of contamination.

Implications of PFAS Contamination on Wildlife

The environmental persistence of PFAS means they can bioaccumulate in wildlife. Studies have detected PFAS in many animals, from fish and birds to polar bears. This contamination can lead to various health effects in wildlife, potentially including developmental issues, immune system dysfunction, and hormonal imbalances.

The Long-Term Consequences of AFFF Pollution

Scientists continue to uncover the full extent of PFAS contamination and its long-term environmental consequences. As these chemicals don't break down naturally, contamination today could affect ecosystems for generations. The bleak reality of a PFAS-contaminated world underscores the urgency of finding alternatives to AFFF and developing effective remediation strategies for already contaminated sites.

What Are Government Officials Doing to Fight FAAA Contamination? 

As awareness of the PFAS problem grows, regulators have started to take action. In 2019, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which required the Department of Defense to phase out the use of AFFF containing PFAS by October 2024, with some exceptions for continued, limited use.

The EPA also stepped up its efforts. In 2022, the agency proposed designating two of the most studied PFAS (PFOA and PFOS) as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). This designation would require facilities to report releases of these chemicals and could accelerate the cleanup of contaminated sites.

Three Safer Alternatives to AFFF

Fire departments and researchers are actively seeking alternatives to PFAS-containing foams. Some options include:

  1. Fluorine-free foams: These foams use different chemicals to achieve fire suppression without PFAS.
  2. Water enhancers: Products that increase the effectiveness of plain water for fire suppression.
  3. Compressed air foam systems: These use less water and foam concentrate by mixing them with compressed air.

However, each alternative comes with its own set of challenges. Some may not be as effective on certain fires, while others might require new equipment or training.

AFFF Firefighting Foam’s Huge Financial Burdens

Financial Burdens

The transition away from AFFF isn't just a matter of health and environmental concern – it's also a significant financial and legal burden. Fire departments, many already operating on tight budgets, now face many new expenses. They must bear the costs of disposing of existing AFFF stocks, which requires specialized handling. 

Fire departments must also purchase new PFAS-free firefighting agents, which can be more expensive than traditional AFFF. Additionally, decontaminating or replacing equipment exposed to PFAS can be costly and time-consuming. Personnel also require training on new firefighting techniques associated with PFAS-free foams, further adding to the financial strain.

The financial implications extend beyond just operational costs. Some fire departments and municipalities are grappling with lawsuits related to PFAS contamination, adding a legal dimension to the crisis.

A notable example occurred in 2018 when a coalition of public water suppliers in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina filed a federal lawsuit against DuPont and Chemours. The lawsuit alleged that these companies knowingly discharged PFAS into the Cape Fear River for decades, highlighting the potential legal ramifications for those involved in producing and using PFAS-containing products.

The Alarming Toll of AFFF on Firefighters

Behind the statistics and regulatory actions are the personal stories of firefighters and their families. Many firefighters have raised concerns about their long-term health after years of AFFF exposure.

The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) launched a PFAS cancer awareness campaign recently. The campaign aims to educate firefighters about the risks of PFAS exposure and advocate for better protections.

The IAFF has also partnered with researchers to study the health impacts of PFAS on firefighters. One such study, conducted in conjunction with the University of California, Irvine, is examining PFAS levels in firefighters' blood and how these levels change over time.

AFFF’s Broader Impact

The effects of AFFF extend beyond firefighters to the communities they serve. In areas where scientists have identified PFAS contamination, residents face uncertainty about their water quality and potential health risks.

For instance, in Oscoda, Michigan, near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, residents have grappled with PFAS contamination for years. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has advised against eating fish from certain local water bodies and warned about the potential risks of foam on lake surfaces.

These situations create a web of health, environmental, and economic challenges for affected communities.

Looking Ahead: Solutions and Challenges to PFAS Pollution

PFAS Pollution

Addressing the AFFF problem requires a multi-faceted approach:

  1. Research: Continued study of PFAS health effects and development of safer alternatives is crucial.
  2. Regulation: Stricter regulations on PFAS use and disposal can help prevent future contamination.
  3. Remediation: Cleaning up existing PFAS contamination is a massive but necessary undertaking.
  4. Education: Firefighters and communities need to be informed about the risks of PFAS exposure.
  5. Support: Firefighters exposed to PFAS need access to health monitoring and care.

Progress is being made on these fronts, but challenges remain. Cleanup of PFAS-contaminated sites is complex and expensive. The EPA estimates that it could cost billions of dollars to address PFAS contamination nationwide.

Have You Been Sickened by AFFF? The Lawsuit Legals News Team Can Help. 

If you or a loved one may have been sickened by exposure to PFAS chemicals in AFFF firefighting foam, The Lawsuit Legal News Team can help you. Our firefighting foam cancer lawyers understand the complex nature of AFFF-related environmental and health issues, and we are committed to fighting for your rights.

We're actively representing firefighters, airport staff, and military veterans across the nation who have suffered health consequences from AFFF exposure. Our team is prepared to seek compensation for all of your AFFF damages, including medical expenses, lost wages, and the emotional toll of PFAS-related illnesses.

Don't face this challenge alone. Let our firefighting foam cancer lawyers guide you through the process of seeking justice and compensation. We offer free, no-obligation consultations to discuss your case and explore your options.

Take the first step towards protecting your rights and securing your future. Contact the Lawsuit Legal News Team today at (866) 535-9515 or visit our website to fill out our contact form. Our dedicated firefighting foam cancer attorneys are ready to help you and your family get the compensation you deserve.


Matthew Dolman

Personal Injury Lawyer

This article was written and reviewed by Matthew Dolman. Matt has been a practicing civil trial, personal injury, products liability, and mass tort lawyer since 2004. He has represented over 11,000 injury victims and has served as lead counsel in over 1000 lawsuits. Matt is a lifetime member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum and Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum for resolving individual cases in excess of $1 million and $2 million, respectively. He has also been selected by his colleagues as a Florida Superlawyer and as a member of Florida’s Legal Elite on multiple occasions. Further, Matt has been quoted in the media numerous times and is a sought-after speaker on a variety of legal issues and topics.

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