The firefighters, who suffer from various forms of cancer, claim that the use of PFAS chemicals in the suits and foam was a “substantial factor and proximate cause of the cancers, serious illnesses, and bodily injuries.”
Firefighters’ Allegations Regarding “Forever Chemicals”
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known collectively as PFAS, are in a wide range of personal and commercial products. Examples of the products range from nonstick pans to flame-retardant clothing. PFAS chemicals—known as “forever chemicals”—can linger in the environment for centuries.
Studies have linked PFAS exposure to a number of health risks, including an increased risk of kidney or testicular cancers.
In their federal lawsuit, the Massachusetts firefighters allege that they each had some form of cancer. The firefighters also claimed that their blood tests reveal elevated blood levels of PFAS.
The firefighters also allege that certain items exposed them to PFAS chemicals. They point to flame-retardant firefighting gear treated with PFAS as one source of exposure. Another source was firefighting foam.
The lawsuit claims the firefighters were exposed to PFAS in the ordinary course of their duties as firefighters. According to the firefighters, they did not and could not have known they were being exposed to PFAS. The lawsuit also claims that they did not know that the chemicals lingered in their bodies. It also alleges a causal link between the elevated PFAS levels now present in the firefighters’ bloodstreams and the various forms of cancer the firefighters are experiencing.
The lawsuit names 25 companies as defendants, including Carrier, DuPont, and 3M. It alleges that the defendants manufactured, distributed, or sold the PFAS-containing firefighting items while knowing the health risks associated with PFAS exposure.
Health Effects of PFAS Exposure
PFAS contamination is in soil, water, and other sources nationwide. As such, research is underway to explore the full impact of PFAS exposure on human, plant, and animal health.
In addition to an increased risk of kidney and testicular cancers, PFAS exposure is also linked to other health risks, including:
- Increased cholesterol levels
- Increase risk of high blood pressure or preeclampsia in pregnancy
- Slight decreases in infant birth weights
- Changes in liver enzymes and enlarged livers in some animal test subjects
- Decreased vaccine response in children
Studies with lab animals exposed to PFAS resulted in birth defects, developmental delays, and newborn deaths in the lab animals. Researchers are still studying whether and to what extent these symptoms might repeat in humans who experience PFAS exposure.
Cancer is now the number one cause of death among firefighters, pushing cardiac events to the number two position. The cause of this change and the circumstances behind the development of various cancers remain subjects of research.
There has been somewhat better documentation of the dangers of PFAS exposure. Investigations into some companies that manufactured or distributed products containing PFAS indicate that these companies were aware of the risks the chemicals posed for many years before these risks became apparent to the public. In a 1999 resignation letter, for instance, one environmental specialist at 3M accused the company of “unethical” behavior in how it handled information related to the dangers of PFAS.
What to Expect in the PFAS Firefighter Litigation
While information about the effects of PFAS on humans, animals, and the environment is mounting rapidly, many questions remain open. In the Massachusetts case, for example, firefighters will need to demonstrate that the exposure to PFAS in their firefighting equipment resulted in the elevated levels of PFAS in their blood and that these levels in turn played a causal role in the forms of cancer the firefighters are now battling.
Medical and scientific experts will thus play a key role in this case and in other PFAS litigation springing up nationwide. Attorneys will likely ask physicians specializing in oncology, toxicology, and related fields to opine on the effects of PFAS on the body and its link to cancer development. Additionally, attorneys may also ask experts in manufacturing firefighting gear and other items to explore the question of how PFAS exposure might occur and whether any reasonable alternatives were available to PFAS use in these particular applications. Many questions remain unanswered.