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RING THE ALARM: America’s Finest Among Highest Profession at Risk for PFAS Related Injuries

April 21, 2021Article

Firefighters are among those who have suffered the most effects of contact with PFAS[1] chemicals primarily through either handling firefighting foam or through donning personal protective equipment. According to the New York Times, studies undertaken by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have found that firefighters have a 9 percent higher risk of getting cancer and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from the disease than the general United States population.[2] In late 2019, experts from the IPEN (International Pollutants Elimination Network), a Swedish-based, global network of public interest organizations, published a white paper entitled “Perfluorohexane Sulfonate (PFHxS)—Socio-Economic Impact, Exposure, and the Precautionary Principle.” IPEN paper noted that “Firefighters can be significantly exposed to PFHxS and other PFAS from firefighting foam via various occupational mechanisms including direct exposure during use as well as exposure from contaminated personal protective equipment (PPE), handling of contaminated equipment, managing PFAS foam wastes, occupation of contaminated fire stations and consumption of contaminated local water and produce.”[3]

Fire Fighting Foam (AFFF)

One of the main sources for firefighters to contact PFAS chemicals is handling AFFF, also known as aqueous film forming foam. AFFF is a highly efficient type of fire suppressant agent, used by itself to attack flammable liquid pool fires, and in conjunction with other chemicals to attach liquid fires.[4],[5] PFAS chemicals have been widely used in AFFF as a fire-fighting agent since the 1960s.[6] The 2019 IPEN white paper entitled “Perfluorohexane Sulfonate (PFHxS)—Socio-Economic Impact, Exposure, and the Precautionary Principle” presented "unequivocal evidence from recent studies that firefighters using aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) have unacceptably elevated blood levels of both PFHxS and PFOS.”[7]

Physicians and experts are still investigating the health effects of elevated chemical blood levels.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

A 2020 study performed by researchers from the University of Notre Dame found significant quantities of similar chemicals in firefighter protective clothing applied to keep the clothes water-resistant. The researchers found that those chemicals were shedding from the clothing or migrating into the inner layers of coats.[8] Specifically, the abstract to the study noted concerning conclusions:

Textiles used as firefighter turnout gear were found to have high levels of total fluorine (up to 2%), and individual PFAS were identified and measured on new and used firefighting turnout gear. Used gear showed lower levels of PFAS as well as an increased migration into untreated material. A dust measurement from a textile storage area also suggests direct loss of PFAS from the fluoropolymers in the textiles. Because PFAS that are shed from the textiles used in turnout gear are more mobile, they represent another viable exposure source for firefighters that warrants further study.

Litigation

It appears that the federal courts are attempting to handle claims by firefighters and others together in the South Carolina multidistrict litigation whether claims arise from injuries sustained through ingestion of contaminated groundwater, AFFF or firefighting PPE. For example, the Northern District of California transferred the claims in Mauldin et al. v. 3M Company et al., U.S. District Court California Northern District (San Jose), Docket No. 5:20-cv-07212-LHK and Poynter-Abell v. 3M Company et al., Eastern District of Missouri, Docket No. 4:2020-cv-01568 to the South Carolina MDL, over plaintiffs’ objections, on February 21, 2021. The California Court noted plaintiffs’ arguments in opposition to the transfer:

Plaintiffs in the Mauldin and Poynter-Abell actions also argue that transfer of their actions is inappropriate because they do not involve allegations of groundwater contamination. Rather, plaintiffs allege that they are or were firefighters who were exposed to per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) through use of aqueous film-forming foams (AFFFs), which are used to extinguish fires, and by wearing certain protective clothing and gear that allegedly contained PFAS. Plaintiffs thus argue that their actions do not involve the same factual core as the actions pending in MDL No. 2873.

The Court also noted that MDL No. 2873 already includes more than 350 direct exposure actions by firefighters filed directly in the South Carolina MDL.

Hawkins Parnell & Young continues to monitor PFAS litigation, legislation, and news to protect our clients against PFAS contamination.


Authors: Edward P. Abbot (Partner-in-Charge, New York), Deena M. Crimaldi (Of Counsel, New York)


[1] Dubbed the “forever chemicals,” Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many other chemicals. See, e.g., https://www.epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas