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Until recently, Aqueous Film-Forming Foam, more commonly known as AFFF or firefighting foam, was heavily used by military and civilian firefighters in training and response to Class B fires.  AFFF contains man-made chemicals, including PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid), both part of a family of chemicals known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances).  Referred to as “forever chemicals,” once consumed, inhaled or absorbed, these substances remain within the body for substantial amounts of time.  For example, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the half–life of PFOS, which is the time needed for the concentration of a substance to decrease by half, is estimated to be between 3.3 and 27 years.  

Over periods of exposure, these chemicals accumulate in the body and the potential for adverse health effects greatly increases.  The ATSDR has identified several factors affecting the risk for these adverse effects, including “exposure dose, the frequency of exposure, the route and duration of exposure, and the time of exposure during the lifecycle.”  Additionally, in 2020, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) officially classified PFAS as a possible human carcinogen, which means that exposure to such chemicals may cause cancer in humans. This was determined based on research that links high levels of PFAS to diseases like kidney and testicular cancers and other health complications like hormone disruption, harm to the immune system, and liver and kidney toxicity. Also in 2020, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published a study proving that PFOA, one of the toxins present in AFFF, shares at least five key characteristics with known carcinogens. Specific cancers and illnesses linked to AFFF exposure include, but may not be limited to:

  • Kidney Cancer;
  • Testicular Cancer;
  • Thyroid Disease;
  • Lymphoma;
  • Preeclampsia; and
  • Ulcerative Colitis.

Moreover, the scientific community is continuing its investigation into associations between PFAS and other adverse health effects, including pancreatic, bladder, colon and prostate cancer and leukemia, among others.

Importantly, exposure to AFFF or PFAS does not predict whether an individual will develop any of these adverse health effects.  Currently, blood tests may show whether an individual has PFAS levels in his or her blood.  But, these tests cannot forecast future development of any adverse health effects or provide information for treatment.  That said, defense against the potential health adverse effects of exposure to AFFF involves taking proactive health measures, including reducing exposure to PFAS and participating in recommended health tests, such as annual physicals and cancer screenings. Also, if an individual is experiencing any unusual health symptoms, he or she should consult with a medical doctor. 

Substantial litigation is ongoing regarding exposure to AFFF and/or PFAS and the development of various cancers and other adverse health conditions.  Across the country, firefighters and U.S. military service members have filed hundreds, if not thousands, of AFFF lawsuit claims against manufacturers after exposure to firefighting foam.  Currently, the vast majority of these lawsuits are consolidated in Charleston, South Carolina in a Multi-District Litigation (MDL) in the District of South Carolina.  In a MDL, a single judge manages pre-trial discovery and may resolve common legal or factual issues for the litigation.  If an individual has been exposed to AFFF and/or PFAS, and developed an adverse health condition, he or she may want to consider consulting with an attorney regarding whether litigation is appropriate.  As in all legal matters, the selection of any attorney is an important decision and should be given careful thought. 

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