What is fire fighting foam?
Perfluorooctane sulfonate or perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOS and PFOA, are man-made chemicals used to make items heat or water-resistant and found in a range of everyday items such as take-out food wrappers, no-stick cookware, and clothing. The military also uses the chemicals in foam concentrate to put out petroleum-based fires. This is what we call fire-fighting foams.
In the 1970s, the Department of Defense started using aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), which contained high concentrations of PFOS to extinguish specific types of fires such as aircraft/jet fuel fires, flammable liquids and more. The problem with PFOS and PFOA is that, unlike other chemicals, they do not degrade over time in the environment which raises an environmental concern. Most are found to accumulate in groundwater and find their way into local drinking water supplies.
In 2000, the only United States manufacturer, 3M, started phasing out the use of PFOS and PFOAS due to the tendency of the chemicals to build up in human tissue. DuPont was using the compound under the name of C8 and marketing it as Teflon. When 3M stopped production, DuPont built a factory to start producing the chemicals.
What are the health effects of fire fighting foam exposure?
Due to several lawsuits against DuPont, several studies were conducted over the years on the impact of PFOS and PFOAs on human exposure. A study in 2004 by Dr. James Dahlgren, a nationally known toxicologist, identified increased risks of prostate cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, and multiple myelomas associated with toxic firefighting foams. In 2012, scientists at Emory University identified similar conditions between individuals who were exposed at the DuPont factories that manufactured C8. Workers showed a three-fold increased risk of mesothelioma or chronic kidney disease and a two-fold increased risk of developing diabetes mellitus Type 2, kidney cancer, and non-cancer kidney diseases. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also linked the chemicals to low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations, liver effects (tissue damage), immune effects (antibody production and immunity), thyroid effects, and cholesterol changes.
DuPont itself conducted medical studies on the chemicals as far back as the 1960s that showed liver damage in animals and other adverse health effects. One study showed the compound bound to the blood’s plasma proteins. In 1981, 3M found the chemicals caused birth defects in rats and informed DuPont. DuPont reviewed births of their employees and found two birth defects of seven recent births and did not inform the EPA of the information or the 3M study. By the 90s, DuPont was aware that C8 caused testicular, pancreatic cancer, and liver tumors in lab animals but again, failed to inform the EPA. In 2006, eight major global manufacturers agreed to stop the production of the hazardous substances and chemicals.
The EPA studies are specific that exposure is through drinking water and not food ingestion or skin exposure. 3M originally informed DuPont when they began purchasing the chemicals that PFOS and PFOA were never to be disposed into the water, only incinerated. Several lawsuits show that DuPont dumped tons of the chemicals into groundwater sites at their manufacturing facilities.
Human exposure with PFOS and PFOA is mostly such low levels that there is no expectation of harm. However, because of the high concentrations used in the AFFF, those who lived and worked on particular military installations may be at risk of developing certain conditions. In addition to kidney conditions, the Pentagon has found that PFOS and PFOA are linked to developmental delays in fetuses and infants. In March 2018 report to the House Armed Services Committee, the Pentagon publically listed the full scope of the known contaminant, a first in their history.
Recap of illnesses associated with PFOS and PFAS (fire fighting foams)
A study in 2004 identified increased risks of the following due to fire fighting foam:
- Prostate Cancer/Testicular Cancer
- Hodgkin’s lymphoma
In 2012, Emory University showed an increased risk to the following diseases due to PFOS and PFAS:
- Multiple Myelomas
- Diabetes Mellitus Type 2
- Kidney Cancer and non-cancer kidney diseases
The EPA has also linked PFOS and PFOAs to:
- Low birth weights
- Accelerated puberty
- Skeletal variations
- Liver effects such as tissue damage
- Immune effects such as antibody production and immunities
- Thyroid effects
- Cholesterol changes
List of military sites contaminated with fire fighting foam PFOS, PFOA, and/or PFAS
The list included over 90 military sites that reported either on-base or off-base drinking water or groundwater contamination where the levels tested above the EPA’s acceptable levels of PFOS or PFOAs. Here is a complete listing of all bases and BRAC bases affected, including those overseas.
Records from a law firm in Philadelphia show that the federal government was aware of the groundwater contamination near several bases caused by PFOS and PFOAs. Despite this knowledge, military firefighters continue to make use of AFFF, firefighting foam. While the military personnel is replacing the older version of its foam, the new version still makes use of PFAS, a shorter chemical chain of the PFOS compound, which exits the body faster but still accumulates in the blood and other tissues. It also does not break down in the environment just as the older chemicals.
Are there alternatives to toxic foam?
But there is a viable alternative…..
3M developed a fluorine-free foam that tested equally as well as the AFFF for putting out jet fuel fires set by the International Civil Aviation Organization. However, after a first failed test (by 9 seconds), the Navy refused to pursue modifications to meet their standards and never adopted the PFAS-free foams. DuPont has lobbied heavily against this new foam product with the Department of Defense.
What can veterans do if they were exposed to fire fighting foam?
If you are a military veteran who has experienced one of the conditions below and feel you were exposed to contaminated groundwater at one of the military bases listed on the Pentagon’s report, you may be eligible for compensation from the VA. If a veteran has a health concern, getting an independent medical opinion is vital in identifying the health conditions and having an expert find scientific links for those conditions to the toxins that veterans were exposed to. Call Hill and Ponton for more information or for a free consultation of your claim.