Why Are Firefighters Filing Lawsuits Against Firefighting Foam Manufacturers?

Brave men and women risk their lives every day battling infernos and saving citizens from fire and smoke. But little did these first responders know that fighting flames would one day threaten their health in a sinister way. Behind the scenes, a hidden danger lurked within the very tools firefighters relied on the most.

Used for decades to quickly extinguish aircraft fires and fuel blazes, a substance called AFFF firefighting foam seemed like a hero. Only years later would its toxic secrets be revealed, endangering those who had given so much to protect communities. Scientists uncovered a link between this ubiquitous foam and gruesome illnesses like cancer.

Now, in a dramatic turn, those who faced danger day after day are fighting back.

What Is AFFF?

Aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) is a firefighting foam that works well to extinguish liquid fuel fires. It contains water along with various other chemical components that allow it to foam and form a film over fuels. After AFFF is combined, ethylene and propylene glycol are added to extend the foam’s shelf life.

When combined with water, AFFF is supplied as a concentrated solution. It usually comes in two percent and six percent formulae, depending on how much water is added. The chemical ingredients aid in producing the foam, while the water helps the mixture spread uniformly across fire sources.

This foam is especially effective for fires involving flammable liquids like petroleum that are difficult to extinguish with water alone. When sprayed onto a liquid fuel fire, AFFF works in two key ways. 

First, it coats the surface of the fuel behind the fire, preventing additional fuel from reaching the flames. Secondly, the foam cools the fire as it forms an insulating barrier. This film also blocks oxygen from accessing the fuel source, which is necessary to sustain combustion. As a result, the fire is unable to reignite once extinguished by AFFF.

The per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds (PFAS) in AFFF are what make this insulating foam layer. Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) are two forms that are frequently found in AFFF. These PFAS chemicals were developed in the 1950s and added to consumer and industrial products for their surface-active properties that allow AFFF to smother liquid fuel fires effectively.

How Is AFFF Harmful to Firefighters?

There is growing concern surrounding AFFF due to its composition of PFAS chemicals. PFAS are toxic and do not readily break down in the natural world. These man-made chemicals persist in our environment, water sources, wildlife, and human bodies.

Extensive research has linked certain PFAS to adverse health outcomes in humans. Conditions like cancer have been associated with PFAS exposure. As the primary source of PFAS contamination entering drinking water supplies, AFFF poses serious risks. It is suspected that AFFF may be contributing to elevated PFAS levels detected in Washington’s water.

The dangers of PFAS span several areas. Studies show these chemicals can interfere with reproductive and developmental processes. Higher cancer risks have also been observed in populations with greater PFAS exposure. Immune function may be compromised as well. Testing indicates PFAS are now present at detectable levels in nearly every American as a result of environmental contamination and widespread use of PFAS-containing products.

Firefighters Are Currently Engaged in Legal Disputes and Litigations

Extensive research now links components in AFFF to significant long-term health risks. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) do not easily break down and can accumulate in the body over time.

Multiple studies associate certain PFAS with cancer, immune system effects, and other serious illnesses. Those with higher occupational or environmental exposures to AFFF foam are particularly vulnerable. As a result, TorHoerman Law says, AFFF manufacturers now face growing product liability litigation. Firefighting foam cancer lawyers represent victims seeking compensation for damages from PFAS-related diseases.

According to the latest AFFF lawsuit update, several major chemical companies supplied AFFF with PFAS to fire departments, bases, and industrial sites for decades. 3M, DuPont, Chemours, Tyco/Ansul, and others are now defendants in lawsuits alleging failure to warn of AFFF dangers. The plaintiffs want to make these providers liable for any subsequent medical expenses, missed income, suffering, and other monetary and non-monetary losses.

As scientific evidence of PFAS toxicity expands, those exposed to firefighting foam have valid concerns. Litigation aims to help victims assess damages while incentivizing AFFF reformulation with harmful PFAS. The health and well-being of firefighters, military members, and other foam handlers deserve protection.

What’s Next?

Research on substitute firefighting foam is funded by two Department of Defense (DOD) environmental study and demonstration programs: the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program (ESTCP) and the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP). 

These programs work to address important environmental issues facing the DOD. Additional research is still needed to identify viable replacements for the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) found in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF).

Since 2017, over $11 million has been committed to researching alternative firefighting technologies. SERDP has provided funding opportunities for basic applied research and advanced technology development to identify polymer, nanoparticle, and other technology-based solutions. Meanwhile, ESTCP has funded testing of existing products to evaluate if they meet military performance standards.

The DOD plans to continue its efforts to find PFAS-free replacements. Recently, the DOD invited proposals for developing and demonstrating non-fluorinated firefighting formulations. 

SERDP will fund further research and development work, while ESTCP aims to support the demonstration and validation of promising technologies. Ideally, officials hope to identify a “drop-in replacement” compatible with existing firefighting equipment infrastructure. 

Researchers are also examining the ecotoxicology of alternatives to avoid unintended environmental or health impacts once operationalized. The goal is to ensure military capabilities while protecting human and environmental health.

 With continued efforts, the hope is that future generations of firefighters and others will be protected from chemical threats on the job. While challenges remain, those impacted are working to ensure proper precautions are taken, and acknowledgment is given to lives already affected.

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