Aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) is a firefighting foam utilized to extinguish flammable liquid pool fires. AFFF contains perfluoroalkyl and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), man-made chemicals known for their water and stain-resistant properties. PFAS persist in the environment and accumulate in the human body, leading to growing concerns about potential health risks, including cancer, thyroid disease, and reproductive problems. Firefighters face particular risks due to AFFF exposure during firefighting operations.
The History of AFFF
The history of AFFF can be traced back to the development of synthetic foam concentrates during World War II. After the war, researchers began looking for ways to improve firefighting capabilities for aircraft and fuel fires. In 1962, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) started working on developing AFFF. By 1966, the NRL had successfully developed the first AFFF formulation, which was introduced into the market by 3M under the brand name “Light Water.”
The use of AFFF quickly gained popularity due to its effectiveness in rapidly extinguishing large-scale fires, particularly in the aviation and petrochemical sectors. It became the standard firefighting foam for military and civilian applications worldwide. However, in the early 2000s, concerns began to arise about the environmental and health impacts of certain chemicals found in AFFF, specifically per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These chemicals have been linked to various health problems, including cancer, thyroid disorders, and immune system issues.
The Health Risks of PFAS Exposure
PFAS, a group of over 4,700 man-made chemicals, are used in various products, including firefighting foam, food packaging, and non-stick cookware. PFAS’s health risks are still being studied, but evidence shows that they can interfere with the body’s endocrine system and increase the risk of cancer, thyroid disease, and reproductive problems. PFAS have also been linked to other health issues, such as:
- High cholesterol
- Liver damage
- Kidney damage
- Immune system problems
- Birth defects
- Developmental problems
The AFFF Lawsuits
Due to growing concerns about the health risks of PFAS exposure, several lawsuits have been filed against AFFF manufacturers. These AFFF lawsuits allege manufacturers were aware of PFAS’s health risks but continued selling the foam. The lawsuits seek to hold manufacturers accountable for the harm caused to firefighters and others exposed to the foam.
The first AFFF lawsuit, filed in 2012 by a group of firefighters diagnosed with cancer after AFFF exposure, was against 3M, Tyco Fire Products, and Chemours. The lawsuit alleged that the companies knew about PFAS’s health risks but continued to sell the foam. The lawsuit settled in 2017 for $119 million.
AFFF Class Action Lawsuit (MDL)
The AFFF MDL class action lawsuit is a collection of legal cases filed against manufacturers of AFFF due to its environmental and health impacts. The primary concern is the presence of PFAS in AFFF.
In 2018, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) consolidated numerous AFFF lawsuits into a single MDL (In re: Aqueous Film-Forming Foams Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 2873) in the District of South Carolina. This MDL centralizes lawsuits across the United States with an odd collection of firefighters, municipalities, and other entities alleging contamination of groundwater, drinking water, and other environmental resources due to PFAS chemicals in AFFF products.
Several manufacturers and suppliers of AFFF, including 3M, Tyco Fire Products, Chemguard, and National Foam, have been named defendants in these lawsuits. The plaintiffs allege that these companies were aware of the health and environmental risks associated with PFAS chemicals in their products but failed to inform users or take appropriate steps to mitigate these risks.
The AFFF MDL lawsuit aims to hold the responsible parties accountable for the damages caused by PFAS contamination and seeks compensation for medical expenses, property damages, and other losses incurred by the plaintiffs. Additionally, the lawsuit seeks funding for medical monitoring and remediation efforts to address the ongoing impact of PFAS contamination.
As of May 2023, the AFFF MDL lawsuit is still ongoing, and the litigation process continues to move forward with a trial date this spring. The outcome of this litigation – a claim by the City of Stuart over PFAS in the water supply – could have far-reaching implications for the firefighting foam industry and the broader issue of PFAS contamination in the environment. The hope is that a settlement in the City of Stuart case might spawn settlements for firefighters.
Municipal Water Contamination AFFF Lawsuits
The AFFF litigation over the danger of PFAS is bifurcated into two separate types of cases. The first category of cases are product liability lawsuits described above in which individual firefighters and others allege that exposure to AFFF firefighting foam caused cancer. The second category of cases in the AFFF class action litigation are municipal water contamination cases.
Local municipalities and jurisdictions nationwide are filing water contamination cases against AFFF manufacturers. The lawsuits allege that PFAS in the AFFF products manufactured by these companies got into the groundwater and contaminated the municipal drinking water supply system. The water contamination cases account for around half of the pending cases in the AFFF class action MDL.
AFFF lawsuits represent an essential development in holding PFAS-containing product manufacturers accountable for the harm caused by their products. The lawsuits raise crucial questions about the health risks of PFAS exposure and the need for safer AFFF alternatives. Although the lawsuit outcomes are uncertain, they are expected to significantly impact AFFF’s future use and the regulation of PFAS-containing products.