Thousands of military firefighters were trained at Air Force bases across the country to spray firefighting foams made with toxic and carcinogenic PFAS chemicals (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances). The foam was believed to be a fast and effective tool to fight complex liquid fuel fires.

Military installations used aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) in fire-fighting training and fire suppression systems throughout their bases. This allowed PFAS carcinogens to leach into the groundwater. The Department of Defense (DOD) has found 678 military sites where the groundwater or drinking water was contaminated by hazardous chemicals. Asbestos is similarly dangerous.

PFAS compounds are man-made. They contain strong carbon-fluorine chains and have unique properties: They are water-soluble, have low volatility, and are resistant to biodegradation. These properties make them an effective firefighting tool, but also hazardous to humans and the environment. PFAS compounds can persist over several decades in the human body and water.  They are linked to multiple types of cancerous tumors and other diseases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) biomonitoring program shows that PFAS are widely found in the U.S. water supply and nearly all Americans have the chemicals in their blood. That’s why they’re sometimes called “forever chemicals.”

Cancer at military bases

DOD has known of the potentially deadly health problems PFAS can cause since the 1970s, but it has continued to use them. The department even conducted its own studies which confirmed that PFAS poses a serious risk to human health.

Despite the information DOD had on AFFF, military firefighters were not informed of the risks posed by PFAS chemicals until 2015, more than 40 years after the department first knew of the potential harms.

Military firefighters were required to use AFFF, even though they faced serious risks. What’s more, DOD failed to ensure they had protective gear and directed them to simply spray the foam on the ground, disregarding the pollution risk to drinking water.

Now studies show that firefighters have elevated levels of PFAS in their blood. Reports across the nation inform that drinking water pollution, especially near military bases, is on the rise. Also on the rise are immune diseases, kidney and testicular cancer rates, and other serious illnesses in individuals, particularly children, living on or near military installations.

Many of these increases are correlated with the chemicals of the PFAS family. Harvard public health professionals say that even one part per trillion (ppt) of PFAS in drinking water is potentially dangerous.

Exposure to PFAS has been linked to several health concerns:

  • Toxic effects on the liver and kidney — PFAS are associated with liver and kidney toxicity, including damage to liver function, liver lesions and kidney degeneration. In scientific research, PFOA, one of the most studied PFAS compounds, has been classified as possibly carcinogenic based on evidence linking chemical exposure to kidney and testicular cancer.
  • Immune system disorders — The immune system has been identified as sensitive to PFAS in both epidemiological studies and the laboratory.
  • Hormone disruption — PFAS has been indicated to have effects on hormone production and response, affecting the thyroid and the regulation of fat metabolism.
  • Prenatal developmental toxicity — PFAS exposure has been associated in laboratory tests with disrupted reproductive cycles, impaired ovarian development and lower birth weight.

The U.S. EPA has issued a health advisory, meaning people need to be aware of the harmful effects of PFAS if they reach 70 ppt in drinking water or groundwater. Yet, the advisory does not order water companies to stop providing the contaminated water to customers.

Besides affecting military firefighters, AFFF contamination poses a potentially grave risk to:

  • Pregnant women
  • Personnel working at military bases
  • Residents living in on-base housing
  • People who drink from wells off base

PFAS exposure and the Corona pandemic

“PFAS are something like asbestos, agent orange, and PCBs, all rolled into one,” says Gregory Cade, attorney at Environmental Litigation Group P.C. The chemicals are associated with many serious health conditions, such as immune system disruption, which can cause asthma, allergies, auto-immune diseases such as diabetes and lupus, and other health problems. PFAS are “linked with underlying conditions that make people more vulnerable to viral infections and potentially more likely to suffer severe consequences if infected by the coronavirus,” Cade added.

For instance, a study on 587 children found significantly poorer immune responses to vaccines and weaker antibody responses in those with greater exposure to PFAS. Similarly, children suffering from various infections, such as colds or ear infections, had greater difficulties recovering from these illnesses.

The correlation between the novel coronavirus and PFAS exposure is not perfect and it relies on observational studies. As there are ethical and logistical challenges to running a randomized controlled trial, clear evidence of the potentially toxic mixture of COVID-19 and PFAS  may be hard to find.

What is clear though is that the military, government, and industry have dragged their feet in cleaning up PFAS pollution. But when serious infections emerge, such as the coronavirus, a population with weakened immune systems may feel strongly the consequences of science undermining human health through man-made chemicals.

What has been done for firefighters’ health?

The EPA and federal authorities have started taking measures but they have failed to meaningfully regulate or control PFAS manufacture and use. They’ve also failed to issue standards to protect drinking water and ground and surface water.

People in many states, such as New Hampshire and Vermont, have realized that it’s up to them to set stringent environmental standards and enforcement mechanisms to protect the environment and public health.

Also, water utilities, local authorities, and industrial plants, from states as far apart as Colorado, Delaware, Florida, and Washington are suing 3M, DuPont, Tyco/Chemguard and both the U.S. government and several federal entities for producing the AFFF, or calling for its use.

The lawsuits involving AFFF have been brought together in one multidistrict litigation (MDL) that alleges that AFFF contaminated drinking water supplies. As a result, manufacturers could face billions of dollars in claims.

Central to many lawsuits is the cost of cleanup in areas affected by contamination. Plaintiffs are also seeking damages, among others, for personal injury, need for medical monitoring, property damage, and other economic losses.

Editor’s note: This article was written by the Environmental Litigation Group P.C., a national community toxic exposure law firm dedicated to helping victims of occupational exposure to toxic agents, including PFAS. The lawyers at ELG help clients in jurisdictions nationwide to mitigate their losses resulting from adverse health effects following exposure to toxic substances.