Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) – a group of manmade chemicals used to manufacture certain firefighter foams and many other consumer products – possess concerning commonalities with carcinogens, according to findings just published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
The authors of the study reviewed data on 26 PFAS, including PFOA and PFOS. Both compounds are found in many aqueous film-forming firefighting foams, which for decades have been used by military installations and civilian airports to extinguish fires driven by jet fuel and other highly flammable liquids. They then compared the biological processes that PFAS promote against those listed in the key characteristics of carcinogens framework developed by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.
“We found strong evidence that multiple PFAS induce oxidative stress, are immunosuppressive, and modulate receptor-mediated effects,” the research team wrote. “We also found suggestive evidence indicating that some PFAS can induce epigenetic alterations and influence cell proliferation.”
Overall, each of the PFAS reviewed during the course of the investigation exhibited at least one potentially carcinogenic characteristic.
While the authors did not explore the possible effects of different PFAS levels on cancer risk, the impact that multiple carcinogenic characteristics within a single PFAS might have, or what may happen when more than one PFAS is present in the body, they agreed that all of those issues are worthy of further study.
PFAS are nicknamed the “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment or the human body.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies PFOA and PFAS as “emerging contaminants,” and has established a “Lifetime Health Advisory” setting a recommended lifetime limit for exposure from drinking water. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs has also issued a warning regarding increased risks of breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, testicular cancer and kidney cancer related to the use of firefighting foam at U.S. military installations.
More than a dozen manufacturers, including the 3M Company, Buckeye Fire Equipment Company, Chemguard, Inc., Chemours Company, Chubb Fire, Ltd., Corteva, Inc., Du Pont De Nemours Inc., Dynax Corporation, Kidde-Fenwal, Inc., Kidde, National Foam Inc. Tyco Fire Products, and United Technologies, are defending a growing number of firefighter foam lawsuits that allege exposure to PFAS in their products contributed to the development of cancer among first responders.
They also face claims that PFAS from firefighting foams contaminated drinking water in and around military bases and civilian airports nationwide.
In December 2018, all federally filed firefighter foam lawsuits were centralized in a multidistrict litigation now underway in the U.S. District Court, District of South Carolina. Nearly 500 claims are currently pending in that proceeding.