In the last years, Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFAS) emerged as litigation in the toxic tort world. Most in Alabama are familiar with the Dupont litigation, especially in northern Alabama regarding the contamination of drinking water from the facility manufacturing PFAS. Additionally, aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) lawsuits surrounding the claims that former firefighters have gotten various types of cancer as a consequence of constant exposure to the PFAS chemicals it contained have intensified as more and more information regarding the devastating health effects associated with AFFF are starting to come out.
Back in the 1960s, the U.S Navy and 3M started to work together in order to create a type of fire suppressant foam that was meant to contain fuel fires. Around this time, the Navy also started requiring all its vessels to carry the foam on board, mostly in order to prevent disasters such as the one occurring in 1967 in which 134 sailors lost their lives because of a fire aboard the USS Forrestal. Shortly after, AFFF (or aqueous film-forming foam) was introduced as part of the equipment for firefighters and at airports and military bases to be used for emergency fires and training exercises.
Despite AFFF’s effectiveness, the foam contains high amounts of PFAS chemicals, which are a type of man-made chemicals that have proved to have hazardous effects on the environment and on human health. These chemicals have been named “forever chemicals” because they are extremely persistent both in the environment and the human body, they have the ability to travel for great distances in water and soil and it is extremely difficult to eliminate them from the body.
Over the last decades, the extent of the harm that the use of PFAS chemicals has created started to come to light through Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) testing and numerous scientific studies and tests. All of these uncovered not only the fact that water systems all across the U.S. have been contaminated and some of them have higher concentrations of these chemicals than it is deemed safe but also that they might be extremely dangerous to human health, especially to those with higher exposure such as firefighters and people living near military basis, dumping sites and PFAS products production facilities.
Although currently the EPA has set a health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion, the Centers for Disease Control released a report in 2018 which suggests that this limit should be 10 times less than that and that these chemicals could potentially be far more dangerous to human health than we believe them to be.
Medical Evidence Against PFAS Effects
With the EPA testing across the United States bringing to light the high concentrations of PFAS chemicals, concerns regarding the health effects have started to grow. Numerous scientific and medical studies began raising awareness over the fact that these chemicals could potentially lead to various types of cancer, as well as other diseases that affect especially the immune system, liver and kidney. Most of the studies have focused on PFOA and PFOS, which are just two of the over 4000 types of PFAS chemicals that have been on the market since the 1960s. These are the types that can be found in AFFF and have ended up contaminating groundwater all over the country.
Some epidemiological studies have concluded that there is a clear link between PFAS exposure and health issues, such as cancer affecting the testicles and kidneys, thyroid diseases, asthma, diabetes and a decrease in vaccine response and immune function. Additionally, tests conducted on animals have discovered that exposure to these chemicals can lead to pancreatic and liver tumors and it can even lead to developmental issues in children if the mother has had higher concentrations of PFAS in their blood. These tests also discovered that they have a very high rate of absorption. It’s been observed that rats who ingested these chemicals have absorbed them in less than two hours but it is yet not clear how fast they get absorbed through skin contact. What becomes clear though, is the fact that firefighters who came frequently in contact with AFFF have had a much higher exposure and consequently, they have a higher chance of developing serious conditions.
The Issue of PFAS Exposure Amidst Covid-19
We are currently facing one of the most difficult challenges that modern society has seen — the Covid-19 pandemic. Over 2 million Americans have been affected by it with over 120,000 deaths caused by the virus and the biggest issue is that it doesn’t seem to stop anytime soon. This has raised numerous difficulties not only for the regular citizens as it has completely changed everyone’s lives but also to the medical system, the legal system, the economy and most of all, to the people who are in the vulnerable categories — veterans, people of advanced age and people suffering from serious diseases, particularly cancer.
Considering all the evidence that links PFAS exposure to diseases such as asthma, decreased immune function and cancers that can affect the testicles and kidneys and what we have come to learn about how Covid-19 attacks the body and how dangerous it is catching this virus when suffering from other chronic diseases, it’s clear that the lives of people who have been affected by PFAS exposure are now at a higher risk. But the issues for people affected by PFAS exposure during this period extend far beyond the Covid-19 risks associated with comorbidities. As mentioned before, PFAS exposure can also lead to a decrease in vaccine response, which in the current context is a very serious issue.
As a consequence of often working with AFFF, many firefighters are now suffering from testicular or kidney cancer. This period proves to be more than problematic for them, as the overcrowding of the medical system and the fact that medical facilities could easily become epicenters for spreading the virus, it is very difficult to continue treatment or even to investigate unusual symptoms that can lead to a cancer diagnosis. This also goes for people who have had higher exposure to PFAS such as those living near a military basis.
The Legal Battle Surrounding PFAS Exposure
The devastating consequences that derive from years of PFAS use have prompted numerous lawsuits against manufacturers 3M, DuPont, and many others that throughout the years have produced and released these chemicals into the environment. Despite the fact that there is overwhelming evidence against them and numerous studies have shown how harmful these chemicals are, manufacturers seem to still be aggressively fighting allegations that they knew ever since the 70’s about the health effects and of course, they are also fighting strict regulations on PFAS manufacturing. They have settled numerous class action lawsuits but some experts estimate that they could lose as much as $40 billion in legal battles.
Gary Anderson is an attorney at Environmental Litigation Group P.C. He currently represents the nation’s largest water supplier in regards to contaminated drinking water in several states. Further, his law firm represents thousands of firefighters alleging exposure to AFFF caused a variety of cancers including kidney, testicular, pancreatic and liver cancers. He also serves on the Plaintiffs Executive Committee for the nationwide litigation.