For decades, firefighters have willingly exposed themselves to dangerous conditions and toxic substances to save lives and property from fires. But a once-secret ingredient in the foam they use may now be putting their own lives at risk.
Firefighters are filing lawsuits alleging that aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), used extensively on oil and gas fires, has contaminated their bodies. The substances are toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) linked to cancers and other health problems. What was supposed to extinguish fires safely may instead be slowly killing those who risked it all to protect communities.
After years on the front lines with little understanding of AFFF’s risks, firefighters are now taking the unprecedented step of suing the chemical manufacturers who put their lives in danger. They are seeking compensation for illnesses they claim stemmed from exposure to this firefighting essential turned public health threat.
The Chemistry of Firefighting Foam
Aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), also referred to as firefighting foam, is an essential suppressant that firefighters utilize to put out difficult liquid fuel fires. AFFF has a number of essential chemical components that enable it to successfully put out flames.
Water acts as the primary base of the foam concentrate, while other additives like ethylene and propylene glycol help extend the lifespan of the foam once mixed. Fire departments typically use either a three percent or six percent foam concentrate mixed with water, depending on the fuel properties and fire conditions.
Two important classes of chemicals added to AFFF are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Introduced in the 1950s, PFAS like perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) are human-made fluorinated compounds that serve to make the foam more adhesive and able to form an oxygen-blocking film on fuel surfaces.
When sprayed onto liquid fuel fires, the AFFF coats the fuel source behind the fire front while also providing a cooling effect. More significantly, the PFAS-induced film helps suffocate the flames by preventing additional oxygen from reaching unburned fuel, stopping reignition. This unique chemical-physical firefighting mechanism makes AFFF invaluable for extinguishing hard-to-control petroleum and other liquid fires.
AFFF Poses Major Health Risks for Firefighters
Aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), which is used by firefighters to extinguish liquid fuel fires, contains per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) are two members of the PFAS family of synthetic compounds. PFAS, however, are extremely dangerous due to their toxicity, difficulty disintegrating in the environment or the human body, and ability to accumulate over time.
Numerous scientific studies have linked PFAS exposure to serious health effects in humans. These include increased risks of various cancers like prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers. PFAS have also been associated with impacts on the immune, reproductive, and endocrine systems. Developmental effects have been observed in children exposed to PFAS through contaminated drinking water.
AFFF is the primary source of PFAS contamination entering drinking water supplies. The chemicals can leach into groundwater from areas where AFFF was used or stored. As PFAS do not readily break down, contamination has spread through entire water systems. In response, Washington State passed legislation in 2018 restricting the use of AFFF due to PFAS risks.
Firefighters face significant occupational exposure to PFAS through repeated use of AFFF in training and emergency responses. Studies have found elevated PFAS levels in firefighter blood samples.
Over time, low-level exposures can accumulate in the body and increase health risks. Current research links PFAS to reproductive issues, cancers, cholesterol levels, and immune system impacts. However, fully assessing firefighter health effects remains difficult due to the number and variations of PFAS compounds. Continued research aims to improve understanding of PFAS toxicity and human health impacts.
AFFF Lawsuits Over Health Risks
As research has increasingly linked exposure to PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam (AFFF) to serious health issues, many firefighters, military personnel, and others are pursuing legal action. There are now over 4,700 personal injury and water contamination cases consolidated in an AFFF multidistrict litigation (MDL).
Individuals who developed cancer or other illnesses after exposure to AFFF during firefighting or training activities can file an AFFF foam lawsuit. TorHoerman Law says the lawsuit targets major manufacturers like 3M, DuPont, Chemguard, and others who produced AFFF-containing PFAS for decades. Plaintiffs argue the companies were aware of PFAS health risks but failed to warn consumers.
The U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina now oversees all federal AFFF injury and contamination cases as part of the AFFF MDL. This consolidation aims to streamline discovery and evidence sharing for thousands of similar claims. In a recent order, the judge granted 24 weeks for core discovery in a selection of cases, allowing the litigation to move forward efficiently.
As scientific understanding of PFAS toxicity continues evolving, former firefighters and others exposed to these chemicals through their work or water seek compensation through the legal system. The AFFF MDL consolidation aims to provide overall resolution while recognizing individuals suffer varied health outcomes from PFAS exposure.
Are There Any Alternatives to AFFF?
There are a few alternatives to AFFF.
#1. Fluorine-Free Foams (F3)
As an environmentally beneficial substitute for AFFF, fluorine-free foams are made without the use of fluorinated surfactants. By doing this, the dangers to human health and the environment posed by foams containing PFAS compounds, such as PFOA, are eliminated.
F3 foams have demonstrated exceptional firefighting capabilities during testing, particularly against class B liquid fuel fires. Their commendable performance is leading more fire departments worldwide to adopt F3 foams. By replacing AFFF with these fluorine-free options, a new era of more environmentally responsible firefighting can begin.
#2. Water Mist Systems
Water mist systems utilize very fine droplets of water that can absorb heat efficiently when applied to a fire. The small size of the droplets maximizes the water’s surface area, making this a practical and high-performing fire suppression method.
Water mist systems can be used against various classes of fires, including A, B, C, and K. They are particularly useful for fighting fires in enclosed indoor spaces like buildings, where the mist can quickly lower temperatures and displace oxygen to put out the flames rapidly. The adaptability and precision of water mist systems make them a valuable asset for fire departments.
#3. Compressed Air Foam Systems (CAFS)
CAFS merges water, foam concentrate, and air to create a foam solution that is thicker and denser than traditional firefighting foams. This durable foam gives CAFS the ability to combat both class A and class B fires effectively.
CAFS are renowned for their swift cooling effects and exceptional ability to adhere to surfaces. These characteristics have led to CAFS becoming a preferred method for structural firefighting. Integrating water, foam, and air represents a significant advancement in fire suppression techniques.
Eco-gel is an innovative water additive that turns water into a gel-like substance, boosting its firefighting abilities. When applied, the unique gel clings to surfaces and forms a protective coating that halts the spread of flames while enabling rapid cooling.
As an added benefit, eco-gel is biodegradable and non-toxic, making it an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional foams. Its versatility has proven effective against many types of fires, including those in forested areas. Eco-gel demonstrates the potential for more sustainable and effective strategies in firefighting.
#5. Cold Fire
Cold fire is an eco-conscious fire suppressant that can extinguish a wide range of fire classes from A to D and K. It works by lowering the temperature of active fires and encapsulating the fuel source to prevent re-ignition. Cold fire protects the environment and firefighting gear due to its non-toxic, biodegradable, and non-corrosive composition. Its versatility has made cold fire indispensable for many scenarios, such as structural fires and wildland fires.
In conclusion, the lawsuits filed by firefighters over exposure to AFFF firefighting foam underscore the profound health risks associated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
The tragic reminder of the firefighters’ sacrifices and the pressing need for better AF substitutes are provided by this legal scenario. As the litigation unfolds, it prompts reflection on the broader implications for public health and the imperative to prioritize the well-being of those who dedicate their lives to protecting communities.