Gregory A. Cade
In my role as an attorney for a law firm that handles personal injury cases related to toxic environmental exposures, I see the problem caused by polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, firsthand.
The majority of my clients are former firefighters who have been diagnosed with kidney or testicular cancer as a consequence of long-term exposure to these chemicals through the use of firefighter foam.
None of them were informed about the potential health risks associated with the use of these chemicals, which they regularly came in contact with during training exercises and emergencies.
The foam that is causing these injuries was developed in the 1960s by the U.S. Navy and the 3M company; it was originally meant to contain fuel fires on Navy vessels. Soon, the foam was introduced as part of firefighter’s standard equipment at military bases and airports.
But, as it turned out, a product meant to help keep people safe is actually harming them.
The product, known as aqueous film forming foam, contains PFAS, chemicals that have been proven to be extremely dangerous to the environment and to human health.
PFAS have been nicknamed “forever chemicals” because they are so resistant to environmental degradation. They are also soluble in water, which allows them to travel great distances. If they enter the human body, they tend to accumulate and are difficult to eliminate.
The problem is particularly severe in the United States, where high concentrations of PFAS have been found in groundwater. Several epidemiological studies have linked exposure to these chemicals to a variety of health issues including thyroid diseases, asthma, pancreatic and liver tumors, diabetes, a decrease in immune function and vaccine response as well as cancers affecting primarily the kidneys and testicles.
In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report suggesting these chemicals could be even more dangerous than previously believed. It recommended that the safety limit for these chemicals should be 10 times less than the level — 70 parts per trillion — that the federal Environmental Protection Agency has been advising.
This toxic exposure could potentially harm millions of Americans, especially firefighters and those living near military facilities where the foam is used extensively in training exercises. While the EPA has issued a health advisory and steps are being taken to replace the old foam with a less toxic alternative and impose new regulations on the manufacture and use of these chemicals, it is not enough.
According to federal authorities, there are at least 4,000 PFAS that either are or have been on the market, and new ones are constantly being made in order to replace the old ones. Whether or not these other types can be as harmful as those currently in use is unclear.
The companies that produce PFAS, including 3M and DuPont, are still aggressively fighting allegations that they knew about the health risks associated with exposure to these chemicals for decades. They have already settled class action lawsuits in Alabama and Minnesota worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and could stand to lose as much as $40 billion more.
Through all of this, Americans are still getting ill, firefighters are still getting cancer, and water systems throughout the country are still highly contaminated. And while we’re waiting for solutions to clean up the current mess, we have to wonder how bad the new replacement chemicals are going to be.
Gregory A. Cade is the main attorney at Environmental Litigation Group P.C., where he represents victims of occupational PFAS exposure. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.