Firefighter Foam

Firefighting foam (aqueous film-forming foam or AFFF) has proven to be an extremely effective weapon against jet fuel and petroleum fires. Unfortunately, evidence suggest those exposed to firefighter foam may be more likely to develop certain cancers, especially kidney, testicular, and pancreatic cancer.

What is Firefighting Foam?

For decades, AFFF has been used in civilian and military settings to extinguish fires involving jet fuel and other highly flammable and hazardous liquids. When applied, the firefighting foam blankets the liquid fuel, depriving it of the oxygen required to burn.

AFFF firefighter foam products have been marketed by numerous manufacturers, including:

  • The 3M Company
  • Angus Fire
  • The Ansul Co.
  • The Buckeye Fire Protection Co.
  • Chemguard
  • National Foam
  • Tyco Fire Products
  • United Technologies Corp

They have been widely used by firefighting crews throughout the U.S. Military for the last 60 years, while civilian airports were required to utilize AFFFs until 2018.

AFF Firefighter Foam and PFAS

Many AFFFs contain perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), both of which belong to a class of chemicals called polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Because PFAS have been manufactured and utilized in a wide array of industries since the 1940s, PFOA and PFOS are very persistent in the environment – including groundwater – and the human body. These chemicals do not break down and accumulate in the body over time.

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR), some studies suggest certain PFAS are associated with:

  • Fertility issues and pregnancy-induced hypertension/preeclampsia
  • Increased cholesterol
  • Changes in the immune system
  • Increased risk of certain cancers (e.g., testicular and kidney cancer)
  • Changes in fetal and child development
  • Liver damage
  • Increased risk of thyroid disease
  • Increased risk of asthma

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies PFOA and PFOS as “emerging contaminants,” and has established a “Lifetime Health Advisory” setting a recommended lifetime limit for exposure to the chemicals in drinking water.

Firefighting Foam and Cancer

The EPA, along with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the American Cancer Society, have warned that exposure to PFAS may be linked to an increased risk of cancer, including:

  • Bladder Cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Leukemia
  • Liver Cancer
  • Lymphoma
  • Neuroendocrine tumors
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Pancreatic Cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Testicular Cancer
  • Thyroid Cancer

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified PFOA as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” based on limited evidence suggesting exposure can cause testicular and kidney cancer in humans.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs has also begun warning veterans about the increased risks of breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, testicular cancer and kidney cancer after being exposed to the AFFF firefighter foam in military facilities.

Firefighting Foam Lawsuits

In December 2018, dozens of firefighter foam lawsuits were centralized in a multidistrict litigation now underway in the U.S. District Court, District of South Carolina. Many of the lawsuits claim AFFFs contaminated the groundwater around airports and military bases throughout the country, while others seek compensation for personal injuries allegedly suffered by firefighters and others who were exposed to the products.

Attorneys representing plaintiffs in firefighting foam lawsuits predict the AFFF litigation will eventually grow to include thousands of claims, while some legal experts believe 3M and other defendants could face billions of dollars in liability related to such claims.

  1. ASTDR (March 2018) “Perfluoroalkyls – ToxFAQs”
  2. EPA (N.D.) “Emerging Contaminants and Federal Facility Contaminants of Concern”
  3. EPA (N.D.) “Drinking Water Health Advisories for PFOA and PFOS”
  4. American Cancer Society (January 2016) “Teflon and Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA)”
  6. S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs (N.D.) “PFAS – Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances”
  7. S. District Court, District of South Carolina (December 2018) “Aqueous Film-Forming Foams (AFFF) Products Liability Litigation – MDL No. 2873”
  8. Star Tribune (December 2019) “Rash of lawsuits intensify concerns of 3M’s liabilities over PFAS chemicals”
Last Modified: January 13, 2020

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