Exposure to Aqueous Film-Forming Foams May Cause Serious Harm

For more than 50 years, aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), also known as firefighter foam or firefighting foam, has been used by civilian firefighters, on military bases, and at commercial airports to fight fuel-based fires on ships and aircraft and save human lives. Unfortunately, firefighters, military personnel, and veterans who used AFFF on the job may now be at risk for cancer and other potentially life-threatening side effects as a result of exposure to a group of toxic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Even those who were not directly exposed to AFFF may face serious health risks due to the presence of PFAS chemicals in soil or groundwater contaminated with AFFF runoff. 

What is AFFF?

Aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) is the name given to a type of product commonly used by airport firefighters and military personnel to quickly extinguish petroleum-based fires. The foam is designed to cool the fire and coat the fuel, depriving the fire of oxygen and preventing the fuel from reigniting. Since the 1950s, AFFF has been manufactured with the chemicals perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). These chemicals fall under the umbrella of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are a group of synthetic (man-made) chemicals that have been in use in the United States for decades. PFAS chemicals are found in a number of consumer products, such as stain repellents, pizza boxes, and non-stick cookware, and they are also found in firefighting foams used by civilian and military firefighters. PFAS chemicals are known as “forever” chemicals because they do not break down and can accumulate over time. In fact, PFAS chemicals are very persistent in the environment and the human body, and the EPA warns that there is evidence indicating that exposure to PFAS can lead to “adverse human health effects.”

Sources of Exposure to PFAS Chemicals in AFFF

There are a number of ways in which people can be exposed to harmful PFAS chemicals and there are different levels of PFAS exposure. Perhaps the highest and most dangerous level of exposure occurs among firefighters, military personnel, and others directly exposed to AFFF in fire protection situations. Another possible source of exposure to toxic PFAS chemicals is environmental exposure, which can occur as a result of AFFF use or spills or leaks at AFFF storage locations. According to the EPA, PFAS can contaminate the water supply in areas affected by AFFF runoff, including communities located nearby military facilities, airports, or oil refineries where AFFF is used for fighting fires. 

Possible Side Effects of AFFF Exposure

Because the PFAS chemicals in AFFF can build up in the human body over time, people who are repeatedly exposed to the chemicals through the use of firefighting foam or as a result of contaminated drinking water may eventually reach a point where they begin to experience adverse health effects. “Studies indicate that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals,” the EPA states in a basic information sheet on PFAS. The agency goes on to say that “[b]oth chemicals have caused tumors in animal studies.” In fact, research suggests that long-term exposure to the PFAS in AFFF in high concentrations can increase the risk of several different types of cancer, including: 

  • Prostate cancer
  • Testicular cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Bladder cancer
  • Leukemia
  • Lymphoma 

PFOA, in particular, has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a possible human carcinogen, “based on limited evidence in humans that it can cause testicular and kidney cancer, and limited evidence in lab animals.” According to the EPA, other adverse health effects that have been associated with exposure to PFAS in AFFF include low infant birth weights, decreased fertility in women, effects on the immune system and thyroid hormone disruption. 

Pursuing Compensation for Cancer, Other AFFF-Related Side Effects

Due to increasing concerns about the possible adverse health effects associated with exposure to PFAS in firefighting foam, many airports and other facilities are making the switch to PFAS-free foams that pose fewer health risks and are more environmentally friendly. Unfortunately, civilian and military firefighters and others who have already suffered long-term exposure to PFAS-containing AFFF may still be at risk for cancer and other devastating side effects. Filing an AFFF lawsuit may be the best way for individuals who have been harmed by AFFF exposure to recover the compensation they deserve for their medical care, pain and suffering, and other damages. 


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