Firefighters have long been hailed as heroes for their courage and dedication to saving lives and protecting property. However, in recent years, a disturbing trend has emerged.
Firefighters are not just battling flames but also a hidden threat within their own profession. They are now turning to the legal system to address a new adversary: firefighting foam.
Aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), once seen as a crucial tool in combating fires, is now at the center of a growing number of lawsuits. This article will explore firefighters’ lawsuits against AFFF makers and the possible impacts on public safety and the firefighting sector.
The Problem with Firefighting Foam
Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF), commonly known as firefighting foam, has been a pivotal component within the firefighting industry for several decades. Its remarkable effectiveness in mitigating flammable liquid fires, spanning scenarios involving substances like oil, gasoline, and jet fuel, underscores its significance in fire suppression.
The genesis of AFFF can be traced back to the 1960s when the United States Navy’s Naval Research Laboratory pioneered its development. Notably, its innovative attributes included a remarkably low viscosity and the ability to swiftly spread upon contact with liquid fuel.
These characteristics marked a significant advancement in fire suppression techniques, particularly in addressing fires stemming from aircraft and motor vehicle accidents.
By effectively establishing a barrier between the fuel source and oxygen, the foam achieved the successful smothering of fires. However, the pivotal chemicals responsible for enabling the foam’s unparalleled efficacy have sparked substantial apprehension due to their potential implications.
Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of man-made chemicals, are key ingredients in many firefighting foams. These chemicals are valued for their ability to repel water and oil, making them effective in extinguishing fuel-based fires.
However, PFAS are highly persistent and can accumulate in the environment, including in groundwater and soil. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), at least 45% of tap water could conceivably harbor one or more PFAS compounds. Exposure to PFAS has been linked to a range of health issues, including cancer, hormonal disruption, and developmental problems.
The gravity of the situation has prompted a chorus of firefighter voices expressing unease about potential PFAS-related health consequences. In response, a surge of lawsuits has arisen against manufacturers of firefighting foam, as reported by the TorHoerman Law.
These legal actions contend that manufacturers failed in their duty to adequately warn firefighters about the perils of PFAS exposure.
As of July 2023, a notable 5,227 AFFF lawsuits are pending across the United States. In the ongoing AFFF litigation, no settlements have been finalized yet. However, legal analysts anticipate potential firefighter foam cash settlements ranging from $40,000 to $300,000 or higher, depending on case merits and individual circumstances.
Firefighters at Risk
Firefighters face heightened vulnerability to PFAS exposure due to their direct use of firefighting foam, compounding the broader risks from various sources. Exposure to PFAS isn’t limited to firefighting operations alone; it extends to training exercises involving foam application.
Moreover, the presence of contaminated gear and equipment introduces the potential for prolonged exposure. They are exposed to these chemicals even during periods when they aren’t actively engaged in fire suppression efforts. These circumstances pose substantial health hazards.
The Nature Journal’s reported findings shed light on the extent of the issue. Over 4% of the surveyed firefighters have received cancer diagnoses, emphasizing the concerning ramifications of their profession.
The disparity is particularly stark among firefighters aged 35 to 39, where cancer rates surge to an alarming 323% higher than the general population. Furthermore, the research highlights a disconcerting trend: firefighters who’ve served for over 15 years are 1.7 times more likely to develop cancer compared to their shorter-serving counterparts.
Implications for Public Safety and the Firefighting Industry
The lawsuits against firefighting foam manufacturers raise significant implications for both public safety and the firefighting industry as a whole. On the one hand, the lawsuits highlight the urgent need for better awareness, training, and protective measures for firefighters.
Fire departments must prioritize the safety and well-being of their personnel by minimizing PFAS exposure through improved gear, training protocols, and alternative firefighting methods.
On the other hand, the lawsuits could also prompt changes within the firefighting industry. Manufacturers may be pushed to develop safer alternatives to PFAS-based firefighting foam. This, in turn, would reduce the overall environmental impact and health risks associated with firefighting operations.
The emergence of lawsuits against firefighting foam manufacturers underscores the complex intersection of firefighting, public health, and industry practices. Firefighters, who have dedicated their lives to protecting communities, are now faced with a new challenge that demands a multidimensional solution.
While legal conflicts unfold, it is crucial for authorities, manufacturers, and fire departments to work together in discovering safer alternatives and strategies. These efforts should prioritize effective firefighting while safeguarding the well-being of those who bravely confront emergencies on the frontlines.