Firefighting foam has been widely used by the military, fire departments, and private corporations since the mid-1950s. However, recent lawsuits have linked firefighting foam to serious illnesses like kidney and testicular cancer.
Despite its widespread use, firefighting foam contains toxic chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The health risks associated with firefighting foam and PFAS are now receiving high-profile attention. Government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are studying how certain PFAS affect human health. Further, companies that made firefighting foam are being sued by both individuals and communities.
How Firefighting Foam Puts People at Risk
Firefighting foam is a combination of water, pressurized air, and PFAS. The mixture of these three substances is more effective at controlling fires than just water, particularly for fuel-based fires.
However, unlike water and air, PFAS are man-made chemicals that do not break down over time. Once firefighting foam is used, these chemicals can linger for years — even inside of a person’s body.
Firefighters are at high risk if they are regularly exposed to foam containing PFAS. PFAS can also run off into local water sources without anyone realizing it. If humans consume water or food products contaminated with PFAS, they could develop serious health problems.
Humans who come in contact with PFAS may be at risk of:
- Testicular and kidney cancer
- Thyroid disease
- Ulcerative colitis
- Other health issues, such as hormonal imbalances
With repeated exposure, PFAS will build up in the body. Though anyone exposed to PFAS may be at risk, those who are continuously exposed may be more likely to develop health issues.
Firefighting Foam Exposure on Job Sites
Several different industries heavily relied on firefighting foam for decades. The largest consumers were the military, airports, and fuel companies — not necessarily local fire departments.
Firefighting foam was used in:
- The U.S. Military: According to the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program (ESTCP), the military uses 75% of all firefighting foam, with all other industries using the remaining 25%. The foam was used to put out aircraft and hangar fires and was also a staple of firefighting exercises until the mid-1990s. Today, the military still has huge stockpiles of firefighting foam.
- Airports: The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has required that airports use firefighting foam since the 1970s. Firefighting foam was specifically used because water is not as effective on fires started by jet fuel.
- Fuel Industries: Firefighting foam was a necessity for those working on fuel tank farms and refineries, as PFAS are particularly effective in fighting oil-based fires.
Anyone working on or near these sites could be at risk if they are directly exposed to the firefighting foam or unknowingly consume water polluted by it.
In addition, those who lived near a military base, airport, or fuel farm may also be in danger if PFAS from the firefighting foam contaminated a nearby water source.
Who Is Responsible?
Today, the companies that produced firefighting foams with PFAS are coming under legal and medical scrutiny. According to recent reports, some companies may have known about the health risks of their foams for decades but did not take sufficient action to protect the general public.
Today, people are taking legal action against these companies, seeking compensation for the long-term damage that was done.
Companies facing legal action include:
- 3M: Recently revealed company documents show that 3M knew the PFAS in its firefighting foam and other products were dangerous. However, they did not tell the EPA or the public about the health risks until the early 2000s. According to one report, a former EPA employee claimed the company was more concerned with profits over safety.
- DuPont: This company used PFAS in firefighting foam and more products for over six decades, according to recent reports. Studies from Ohio and West Virginia showed that DuPont factories contaminated local water supplies with PFAS, possibly causing cancer and other diseases.
As of 2019, these companies are facing lawsuits from the states of New Jersey, New Hampshire, and New York surrounding PFA contamination.
Preventing Future PFAS Contamination
According to the CDC, several companies have voluntarily stopped production on PFAS materials, including firefighting foams. That being said, the problem is far from over.
Some organizations will continue to use PFAS-containing firefighting foams through 2020, and over 600 products using the chemicals are still being sold on the market today.
The military and airports are beginning to phase out the use of firefighting foams with PFAs as well, but progress is slow. As part of a 2018 law, the FAA will no longer be required to use PFAS-containing foams. However, this rule will not take effect until 2021.
More steps must be taken at local and national levels to prevent firefighting foams from polluting the environment and to clean up sites that are still at risk.