A growing number of firefighters have filed lawsuits that claim toxic chemicals in AFFF firefighting foam caused them to develop cancer, according to 2021 court filings.

In addition to individual AFFF lawsuits filed by current and former firefighters, a Texas man filed a class action over toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as well as contamination from facilities that use AFFF in January 2021.

As of Jan. 19, 2021, there were more than 950 pending claims in multidistrict litigation in South Carolina federal court under MDL-2873 IN RE: Aqueous Film-Forming Foams Products Liability Litigation. This number is up from 820 claims reported in DuPont’s annual report ending Dec. 31, 2020.

Injuries claimed in the lawsuits include breast cancer, ulcerative colitis, kidney cancer, bladder cancer, testicular cancer, testicular pain, kidney cysts, tumors and other illnesses.

Lawsuits say defendant companies — including 3M, DuPont and Chemours — knew PFAS in its firefighting foam could cause buildup in the body and result in serious health problems but failed to warn the public.

In addition to individual injury lawsuits, several states have sued 3M and other manufacturers for PFAS contamination and cost of AFFF clean up.

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What Is AFFF?

AFFF — also known as aqueous film forming foam — is a firefighting foam designed to extinguish liquid fuel fires. It’s a concentrate mixed with water.

Starting in the 1960s the foam became widely used to control fires. The Department of Defense began using it on military bases in the 1970s. Since then, military and civilian firefighters used it while training and extinguishing fires for decades.

Other facilities that use AFFF include:

  • Chemical plants
  • Airports
  • Municipal services, such as fire departments
  • Facilities that store and process flammable liquids
  • Highway emergency response teams
  • Oil refineries
  • Oil tankers and offshore platforms

The foam contains per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), sometimes called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down naturally. Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) are the most studied PFAS and are the most common types used in the United States.

Dangers of AFFF

PFAS in AFFF are toxic and carcinogenic to animals and potentially to humans as well, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The IARC classifies PFOA as a group 2B carcinogen, which means it is “possibly” carcinogenic to humans.

AFFF lawsuits say that companies had access to research showing PFAS toxicity in animals as early as the 1960s. And by the 1980s, PFAS research showed that people exposed to the chemicals had an elevated risk of certain cancers and adverse health effects.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the EPA have linked PFAS to health problems, including:

  • Increases in cholesterol
  • High blood pressure and preeclampsia in pregnant women
  • Decreased response to vaccination in children
  • Immune system changes
  • Liver enzyme changes
  • Decreases in infant birth weight
  • Increased risk of certain cancers, including kidney and testicular cancer
  • Thyroid disorders

Starting in 2002, 3M — the primary U.S. manufacturer of PFOS — voluntarily phased out its production of PFOS, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Other companies began phasing out PFOA production in 2006.

In March 2020, 3M announced it was setting up an AFFF stewardship program to support proper disposal of its older AFFF products, according to a company press release.

In January 2021, the EPA finalized its Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) guidance regulating PFAS. The rule allows the agency to review and approve certain long-chain PFAS before companies can import, manufacture, use or process them.

But older stock of the foam concentrate may still contain toxic chemicals.

DuPont and Chemours Settle PFOA Claims

The current litigation isn’t the first time AFFF companies have faced lawsuits related to PFAS toxicity.

In 2017, DuPont and Chemours agreed to pay $670.7 million to settle 3,550 injury lawsuits stemming from PFOA environmental pollution from the Washington Works Plant in West Virginia. The companies denied wrongdoing.

Since then, the companies have faced dozens more cases.

In March 2020, an Ohio jury said DuPont had to pay $50 million to Travis Abbot, a man who said PFOA-contaminated drinking water led him to develop testicular cancer, according to Bloomberg.