For more than five decades, aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) has played a crucial role in extinguishing fires. Although AFFF, otherwise known as firefighting foam, has been standard practice in fire departments, the military, and airports, concerns have emerged regarding the potential adverse health effects associated with its use. Firefighting foam has sparked a heated debate, drawing attention not only for its environmental implications but also for its profound effects on public health, primarily due to a class of chemicals called per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS).
Firefighting foam lawsuits allege manufacturers concealed the presence of PFAS in their products and the health risks associated with these chemicals, including cancer, reproductive disorders, and lowered immune system responses.
About Firefighting Foam
Firefighting foam is a specialized substance designed to suppress and extinguish fires by forming a layer that separates the fuel from the oxygen necessary for combustion. Firefighting foam is primarily used to combat flammable liquid fires at fuel storage facilities, airports, industrial sites, and military installations. Its ability to rapidly suppress and prevent the reignition of these fires has made it an essential tool for fire departments.
Firefighting foam began gaining traction in the Navy in the 1960s, and soon military bases, civilian fire departments, and airports employed AFFF in their operations.
Chemicals in Firefighting Foam
One of the key concerns associated with firefighting foam is the presence of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of man-made chemicals. PFAS compounds are a staple in firefighting foam formulations because of their unique properties, including heat, water, and oil resistance. These synthetic compounds, invented by DuPont in the 1940s, consist of carbon and fluorine atoms, producing a chemical structure that creates low surface tension, high thermal stability, and resistance to degradation in PFAS.
While these attributes make them a popular addition to firefighting foam and consumer products like nonstick cookware and waterproof clothing, the prevalence of PFAS has ignited widespread fears. Research has linked PFAS to a range of health complications. More troubling is the accumulation of PFAS in the environment and inside the body, earning them the moniker “forever chemicals.” PFAS break down slowly over time and can build up in soil, food, and water sources.
While states are beginning to phase out, or in some cases, ban, PFAS in firefighting foam and other products, eliminating PFAS will prove challenging because of their resistant qualities.
Companies Involved in Firefighting Foam Lawsuits
Many companies manufacture AFFF, given the heavy reliance on firefighting foam in several industries. However, firefighting foam lawsuits accuse manufacturers of knowing about the toxicity of AFFF but failing to inform the public about the known dangers. Individuals are filing claims against:
- 3M Company
- Tyco Fire Products
- Kidde-Fenwal Inc.
- Buckeye Fire Equipment
- Chubb Fire
- The Chemours Company
Like other companies battling lawsuits in multidistrict litigation, Kidde-Fenwal Inc. recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Therefore, the MDL judge has removed the company from the list of defendants in the upcoming first firefighting foam bellwether trial.
Injuries Linked to Firefighting Foam
There are more than 9,000 PFAS compounds, with PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctanoic sulfonic acid) being the most common types. In 2017, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the most well-studied PFAS, as a possible human carcinogen. Additional studies have traced PFAS exposure to injuries, including:
- Kidney cancer
- Testicular cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Bladder cancer
- Breast cancer
- Liver cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Prostate cancer
Plaintiffs in Firefighting Foam Claims
Those who use firefighting foam occupationally are at a higher risk of developing long-term health complications. Firefighters, military personnel, and airport employees subjected to chronic PFAS exposure are pursuing personal injury claims against firefighting foam manufacturers. Additionally, civilians who live near sites where firefighting foam is used or disposed of are filing lawsuits, alleging PFAS pollution of soil and private wells injured them.
States and cities are also suing firefighting foam manufacturers for allegedly contaminating waterways and natural resources, jeopardizing the well-being of citizens. These lawsuits seek damages from companies to address PFAS contamination in communities and assist in restoring the affected ecosystems and public health.
Firefighting Foam Multidistrict Litigation
In 2018, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation consolidated firefighting foam claims into Aqueous Film-Forming Foams (AFFF) Products Liability Litigation MDL No. 2873. The JPML transferred the cases to the District of South Carolina and selected the Honorable Richard M. Gergel to oversee the litigation.
The AFFF MDL encompasses economic and personal injury claims against companies. Plaintiffs include individuals with personal injury claims and cities that allege firefighting foam contaminated groundwater near various military bases, airports, and other industrial sites where AFFF was used to extinguish fires. Lawsuits request compensation for personal injury, medical monitoring, property damage, or other economic losses.
Status of Firefighting Foam Cases
As of May 2023, the number of firefighting foam claims pending under MDL. 2873 had reached 4,494. The first bellwether trial, the City of Stuart v. 3M Co., et al., is underway. The City of Stuart, located on the southeastern coast of Florida, is suing 3M, DuPont, Tyco, and more for reportedly contaminating its water supply.
The first phase of firefighting foam bellwether trials involves water supply contamination allegations, but the second phase will focus on personal injury claims. These cases deal with plaintiffs who blame polluted water, rather than direct exposure to AFFF, for their injuries.
Firefighting Foam Settlements and Verdicts
We have only recently reached the bellwether process for this MDL, so there are no firefighting foam settlements or verdicts at this time. Attorneys are closely monitoring the City of Stuart trial, as it is our first glimpse into how juries view AFFF lawsuits and will likely have important implications for the future of firefighting foam litigation.