The U.S. military has been using a special type of foam to fight fires for over a half-century. The foam is called aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) and is extremely successful at extinguishing fires, particularly ones where petrochemical compounds are involved. However, there is one major drawback with this foam. It causes cancer. The very individuals who were fighting fires were being exposed to an illness-producing product while working to save the lives and property of others.
A couple of chemicals called polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl (PFAS) are the dangerous culprits in the foam, even though they work very well at extinguishing flames. The stability of their compounds is not affected when coming into contact with materials that are on fire. When AFFF covers a burning surface, it cuts off the oxygen, thus suffocating the fire.
However, this stability has now created a major health risk for firefighters who have been exposed to these carcinogenic chemicals. When military firefighters use the foam on a fire, they involuntarily breathe in these dangerous chemicals that will not break down. In fact, repeated exposure allows the cancer-causing agents to keep accumulating in a firefighter’s body. As is the case with so many cancers, continual exposure to a carcinogen exponentially raises one’s chance of developing cancer.
Exposure to Toxins by Military Firefighters
The military has been heavily using AFFF products in several of its branches, including the Navy, since the latter part of the 60s. The foam was even used during non-critical missions and in training exercises. Due to its ability to extinguish jet fuel fires, it was a military favorite. More than 400 military sites have been identified by the Department of Defense as being potentially contaminated by PFAS.
With decades of use by armed services personnel, it is possible that thousands of retired or active military firefighters have or will develop cancer from exposure to the dangerous compounds. While it is unconscionable to accept, it now appears that manufacturers of the foam likely knew of the carcinogenic properties of PFAS from the earliest point of its introduction into firefighting foam products. Some of the materials were made as far back as the 1940s. If it is substantiated in court that there was prior knowledge of the health risks of PFAS, military firefighter victims can file lawsuits against the manufacturers for negligence.
Side Effects for Military Firefighters
The official names of the chemicals used in AFFF are perfluorooctanesulfonic acid and perfluorooctanoic acid, and they fall within the classifications of being polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances. These PFAS substances are labeled as being “forever chemicals.” Their elemental bonds of carbon and fluorine are so strong that it is extremely difficult for them to be broken down in our bodies and in the environment. Some people would consider the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs a little late with its warnings to veterans and military firefighters about cancer risks from exposure to firefighting foam they were forced to use at military facilities.
Military Firefighters Facing Cancer Risk
Below is a partial listing of a few of the more common types of cancer seen among individuals exposed to PFAS:
- Kidney Cancer
- Pancreatic Cancer
- Bladder Cancer
- Ovarian Cancer
- Thyroid Cancer
- Testicular Cancer
- Prostate Cancer
Toxic Foam Being Banned From Military Bases
The U.S. Senate approved the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which included some important provisions to cause action on the contamination crisis surrounding PFAS. Provisions in the NDAA put a stop to military use of firefighting foam with PFAS cancer-causing chemicals. Unfortunately, many of the water supplies for Americans are already contaminated with these “forever chemicals” due to water runoff from previous firefighting ventures.
Sadly, key provisions that would have forced cleanup of contaminated communities were not included in the bill. The final, approved bill includes the following provisions:
- Military ceases the use of any PFAS-containing foam starting in 2024
- Military training exercises using PFAS-containing foam are banned, and uncontrolled releases of PFAS-containing foam are ended (with some exceptions)
When Congress passed the NDAA in November 2019, the outrage over the foam contamination led them to require that the military find other foam alternatives. The new law allocates $7 million to find out PFAS’ health effects through a nationwide study, plus it allocates $72 million for clean up by the Navy and Air Force. The law did not, however, raise any questions about the PFOS and PFOA’s potential replacements, which are already known to be dangerous to individuals and the environment.
Within the required specifications for firefighting foam that will be used in the future, the military is demanding a product that “shall consist of fluorocarbon surfactants.” So, a replacement foam could still contain a PFAS molecule that is just as harmful to human beings and the environment.
Military Personnel are Filing Lawsuits
It is likely that the manufacturers of firefighting foam knew from the start that the chemicals they were putting into their products were potentially carcinogenic. It is hard for many people to grasp this fact, since some of these products originated in the 1940s. The extreme degree of negligence involved for manufacturers to turn a blind eye for over 70 years is mind-numbing and tragic.
In U.S. District Court in South Carolina, a multidistrict litigation case (MDL) has combined approximately 500 separate lawsuits that could potentially force manufacturers to pay billions of dollars for AFFF claims. By proving in court that there was prior knowledge of the dangerous health risks associated with PFAS, military firefighters may be rightfully compensated for such destructive negligence.
Contact Our Military Firefighting Foam Lawyers
If you, or a loved one, were a firefighter for the U.S. military and suspect that you have developed a serious illness such as cancer from long exposure to AFFF type foams or from any other source of PFAS, you may have grounds to claim compensation.
Call the Eichholz Law Firm to discuss your legal options against the manufacturers of PFAS containing contaminants. You can reach our legal team at (855)-551-1019 or fill out an online contact form.