Air Force Base Water Contamination Lawsuit Filed Over Kidney Cancer From Fire Foam Chemicals

Toxic chemicals from firefighting foam used at U.S. Air Force bases have caused widespread water contamination, and cases of cancer among veterans.

A U.S. Air Force veteran has filed a lawsuit alleging she developed kidney cancer from toxic chemicals in firefighting foam routinely used on a military base where she was stationed, which then leached into the drinking water supply.

The complaint (PDF) was filed by Karen Haldeman on September 29, in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, naming a host of chemical and safety equipment manufacturers as defendants, including 3M Company, Kidde, DuPont, Corteva and others.

Haldeman indicates she was stationed at Travis Air Force Base (AFB) during her military service, where she was exposed to elevated levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) used in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), which have been used during training exercises and to fight petroleum fires on military bases nationwide for decades.

Commonly described as “forever chemicals”, PFAS compounds used in firefighter foam include perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which are now known to bioaccumulate in the body and environment, since they do not naturally breakdown, increasing the risk of a number of serious health conditions for former firefighters and others regularly exposed to the chemicals.

Haldeman was assigned to Travis AFB from 1980 to 1982, during which time she used the drinking water on the base, which has a PFAS environmental contamination level of 712,000 parts per trillion (ppt). The maximum allowed PFAS contamination level set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is 70 ppt.

As a result of the exposure to the chemicals in the fire foam, Haldeman indicates she was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2010, and has undergone on-going medical treatment, including surgery which removed her left kidney. The lawsuit notes that while defendants were long aware of the risks of PFAS exposure, Haldeman did not learn of the potential connection to her kidney cancer until 2020.

“In or about the late 1960’s, testing by Defendants and some of them, (specifically including 3M and Dupont) began to reveal that PFC compounds (initially regarding PFOA), did not breakdown or degrade after their intended use but instead would remain in the environment, inclusive of eventually reaching water supplies,” Haldeman’s lawsuit states. “Additional testing revealed to Defendants, specifically including 3M and Dupont, that the compounds had higher toxicity than understood from the original testing. By not later than that time, 3M and at least Dupont, had actual knowledge of defective design in the chemical compounding of its AFFF products, which gave rise both to a duty to adequately warn those who could be affected and to reformulate. Neither 3M nor Dupont did so, but instead permitted the toxic AFFF to continue to be manufactured, sold and/or distributed in its toxic condition knowing its potential harms.”

Experts warn PFAS chemicals contained in the firefighter foam may take thousands of years to degrade, and past studies have shown their ability to enter and stay in the environment and human body through the air, dust, food, soil, and water.

The toxic chemicals were first introduced into the manufacturing industry in the 1940’s because of their ability to resist heat, grease, stains, and water. However, since then the chemicals have been linked to a myriad of adverse health effects including liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression, and cancer.

Haldeman’s case joins hundreds of similar firefighter cancer lawsuits filed on behalf of individuals directly exposed to the chemicals while spraying the products during training or response exercises, indicating that the toxic chemicals caused various injuries, such as prostate cancer, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, pancreatic cancer and other cancers.

Haldeman presents claims of negligence, strict liability, defective design, failure to warn, fraudulent concealment, and violations of various consumer protection laws.

Given common questions of fact and law raised in the cases, the federal litigation is centralized in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, where it is expected that a small group of “bellwether” cases will be prepared for early trial dates, to help the parties gauge how juries respond to certain evidence and testimony which will be repeated throughout the claims. However, if settlements or another resolution for the lawsuits is not reached following coordinated pretrial proceedings, hundreds of individual claims brought by firefighters and others may later be remanded to U.S. District Courts nationwide for separate jury trials.

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