The Foamy Mess: PFAS Chemicals and the Aqueous Film-Forming Foam Controversy

Firefighters have relied on Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) for many years to extinguish fires fueled by flammable substances. This foam was celebrated for its remarkable ability to blanket and extinguish flames. However, concealed within this firefighting hero was a hidden threat: Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS).

AFFF is now at the center of a growing environmental and health controversy, with lawsuits flying and regulations tightening. Let’s look at the murky world of PFAS in AFFF and explore the science, the concerns, and the ongoing legal battles.

What are PFAS and Why are They Found in AFFF?

PFAS, alternatively referred to as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a set of synthetic chemicals widely recognized for their exceptional characteristics.

These compounds can repel both water and oil, withstand high temperatures, and endure in the environment for extended periods without undergoing significant degradation.

These properties make them ideal for various applications, including AFFF. In AFFF, PFAS act as surfactants, allowing the foam to spread quickly and smother fires. But herein lies the problem – these same properties that make them effective firefighting tools also make them environmental nightmares.

The Dark Side of PFAS: Environmental Contamination and Health Concerns

PFAS are incredibly persistent in the environment. Once released, they don’t readily break down and can contaminate soil and water sources. Studies suggest potential health risks associated with PFAS exposure, including:

  • Higher likelihood of certain cancers
  • Hormonal disturbances
  • Developmental issues in children
  • Compromised immune system

The widespread use of AFFF in firefighting training exercises and real-world fire suppression has led to PFAS contamination near fire stations, military bases, and airports. This contamination has raised concerns about potential health risks for nearby communities that may be exposed to PFAS through their drinking water or contaminated food sources.

Large corporations such as 3M manufacture AFFF, a firefighting foam utilized by firefighters and military personnel for many years. Individuals who work directly with the foam, including current and former civilian and military firefighters, may face long-term exposure and associated negative health effects.

According to TorHoerman Law, in March 2020, DuPont was ordered to pay $50 million to a testicular cancer victim whose diagnosis was linked to PFAS chemicals in drinking water. The lawsuit claimed that the cancer resulted from AFFF contamination in the water supply.

The Legal Battleground: Suing for Accountability

As the dangers of PFAS became evident, lawsuits began to emerge. Communities living near contaminated sites are suing manufacturers of AFFF, alleging they failed to warn about the health risks associated with PFAS and the potential for environmental contamination. 

Additionally, some states are suing these manufacturers to recoup the costs of cleaning up PFAS contamination. Here’s a glimpse into the current legal landscape (as of May 16, 2024):

  • Multidistrict Litigation (MDL): Hundreds of lawsuits against various AFFF manufacturers have been consolidated under one judge for pretrial proceedings to streamline the legal process (MDL No. 2873).
  • Mounting Pressure: Several states have filed lawsuits against AFFF manufacturers, seeking to hold them accountable for the cleanup costs associated with PFAS contamination. For instance, in February 2024, New Jersey sued a group of AFFF manufacturers for contaminating public drinking water supplies.
  • First Jury Verdicts: In a landmark case decided in December 2023, a jury in Michigan awarded a family $1.2 million after they linked their children’s health problems to PFAS contamination from a nearby military base that used AFFF. The decision could establish a precedent for subsequent cases.
  • On May 14, 2024, six new “tag-along” cases from various federal districts were added to the AFFF firefighting foam MDL. These cases are evenly split between water contamination claims and personal injury cases.

It’s important to note that as of May 2024, there haven’t been any court-approved settlements or jury verdicts specifically for AFFF lawsuits related to personal injury claims. However, some settlements have been reached in lawsuits focused on environmental contamination. 

These AFFF lawsuit settlement amounts can offer a potential roadmap for future settlements in personal injury cases. For instance, in January 2021, several chemical companies agreed to a combined $1.185 billion settlement to address PFAS contamination from various sources, not just AFFF.

The ultimate value of any future AFFF lawsuit settlements will depend on the specific facts of each case, including the severity of the alleged health problems and the strength of the evidence linking those problems to PFAS exposure.

Seeking Solutions: A Multifaceted Approach

Addressing the PFAS in AFFF issue requires a multi-pronged approach:

  • Regulation: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is moving forward with stricter regulations on PFAS in drinking water. Additionally, some states are implementing their own regulations to restrict the use of AFFF or limit PFAS levels in the water.
  • Developing PFAS-Free Alternatives: Firefighting foam manufacturers are actively researching and developing PFAS-free alternatives that offer similar firefighting capabilities without environmental and health risks. These alternatives are still under testing and development, but their emergence offers hope for a safer future.
  • Cleanup and Remediation: Cleaning up existing PFAS contamination is a complex and expensive process. Developing cost-effective and efficient remediation technologies is crucial for addressing the legacy of PFAS contamination.

Frequently Asked Questions:

1. Is My Drinking Water Safe From PFAs?

To determine the safety of your drinking water from PFAS, you should consult your local water utility or environmental agency. They typically conduct tests for various contaminants, including PFAS. If you’re concerned, you can request information on water quality reports or contact them directly for more details. Additionally, installing a water filtration system certified to remove PFAS can provide added peace of mind.

2. What Are The Problems With AFFF?

AFFF raises significant concern because it contains PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). These toxic chemicals are known to harm human health and persist in the environment, waterways, wildlife, and human bodies without breaking down easily. PFAS exposure in humans is associated with various adverse health effects, including cancer.

3. What Are 3 Effects Of PFAs In Children?

Children may experience developmental issues or delays, such as low birth weight, early puberty, bone irregularities, or changes in behavior. There is a likelihood of cancers, such as kidney, prostate, and testicular cancers. Additionally, the immune system’s ability to fight infections may be compromised, leading to a reduced response to vaccines.

Looking Ahead: A Balancing Act

The future of AFFF remains uncertain. While it has undoubtedly saved countless lives, the environmental and health concerns associated with PFAS cannot be ignored. Striking a harmony between fire safety and environmental conservation is crucial. The ongoing lawsuits, regulations, and development of PFAS-free alternatives are all steps toward achieving this balance. As research continues and the legal battles unfold, one thing is clear: addressing the PFAS in AFFF issue is a crucial step towards protecting our environment and safeguarding public health.