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Fire Fighter Foam Chemicals Contaminating California Water Basins, Lawsuit Alleges

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A California water district says its water supply wells are contaminated with toxic chemicals found in aqueous film forming foam (AFFF), which have been widely by the military and civilian firefighters throughout the U.S. in recent decades, according to allegations raised in a product liability lawsuit filed earlier this month against a number of chemical and safety equipment manufacturers.

The complaint (PDF) was filed by the Pico Water District on May 11, calling for 3M Company, Du Pont, and several other chemical and equipment manufacturers to pay for the clean up and restoration of its water supply wells in Pico Rivera, California.

The Pico district’s lawsuit alleges synthetic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), used in firefighting foams, have impacted wells throughout what is known as the California Central Basin, as well as the Main San Gabriel Basin. The contaminants include a number of different PFAS compounds, including perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

The lawsuit describes the “forever chemicals” as persistent, toxic, and bioaccumulative, since they do not naturally breakdown. The water district indicates these chemicals have an adverse impact on stormwater, surface water, and ground water, and are found in water pumped from the district’s water supply wells.

“As a result of the use of defendants’ Fluorochemical Products for their intended purpose, PFOS, PFOA, and/or their chemical precursors have been detected in Plaintiff’s contaminated wells at levels exceeding California’s regulatory advisories,” the lawsuit states. “Defendants knew or reasonably should have known that their PFOA and PFOS compounds would reach groundwater, pollute drinking water supplies, render drinking water unusable and unsafe, and threaten public health and welfare.”

The lawsuit seeks to halt further contamination due to the use of these chemicals, and to recover damages in order to compensate the water district for the costs of investigating and remediating its contaminated drinking water supplies.

Firefighter Foam Health Concerns

Experts indicate PFAS chemicals contained in the fire 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.

In addition to a number of similar complaints brought by water districts throughout the U.S., there are also hundreds of individual 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 testicular cancer, kidney cancer, pancreatic cancer and other cancers.

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 that 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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