Firefighter Foam Water Pollution in New Jersey Caused Ulcerative Colitis, Lawsuit Claims
The widespread use of aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) products by firefighters polluted the water supply in New Jersey, according to allegations raised in a lawsuit brought against various chemical and safety equipment manufacturers, which claims that years of exposure to the firefighter foam water pollution caused a Willingboro Township resident to develop ulcerative colitis.
The complaint (PDF) was brought by Marye Smith in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina on September 13, claiming that 3M Company, DuPont and other companies knew for years that their firefighting foam products posed a risk to human health and were building up in the environment.
AFFF has been used for decades by the branches of the U.S. military and local firefighting departments to combat fuel-based fires. However, the foams contain a number of chemical compounds known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which can persist in water supplies and the human body for extremely long periods of time, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals”.
As a result of runoff from firefighter training and response exercises, large volumes of the chemicals have contaminated drinking water in New Jersey and other communities nationwide, especially near military bases, airports and other training locations.
Studies have linked exposure to the chemicals to an increased risk of ulcerative colitis and various types of cancer, leading to several thousand AFFF lawsuits now being pursued against more than a dozen chemical and safety equipment manufacturing companies, both by firefighters directly exposed to the chemicals and individuals who drank contaminated water.
According to the lawsuit, Smith is a resident of Willingboro, New Jersey, which is a suburb of Philadelphia, in the South Jersey region, and she regularly purchased and consumed water from public and private suppliers in the state for decades. However, those waters were heavily contaminated with PFAS chemicals from firefighter foam used by military and civilian emergency response personnel.
Smith indicates that the defendants knew or should have known about the risks of water contamination linked to AFFF products. However, they failed to warn users of the firefighting foam, or consumers who lived near to where the products were heavily used, about the risks of ulcerative colitis and other injuries.
“As a result of drinking water contaminated with Defendants’ fluorochemical products, Plaintiff developed and was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, which has caused Plaintiff to suffer, and continue to suffer, severe personal injuries, pain, and emotional distress, including embarrassment and fear of public incontinence,” Smith’s lawsuit states. “To this day, Defendants’ fluorochemical products remain in Plaintiff’s body, subjecting her to ongoing exposure to fluorochemicals and further increased risk of disease and flare ups.”
Ulcerative colitis is a chronic disease, which causes severe inflammation of the digestive tract, which causes severe pain, abdominal cramps, rectal bleeding and increase the risk of coloon cancer.
Smith claims that she has incurred and will continue to incur significant medical expenses due to her ulcerative colitis caused by firefighter foam water pollution in New Jersey which has also limited her ability to work and caused emotional distress, including embarrassment and fear of public incontinence.
September 2023 AFFF Firefighter Foam Lawsuit Update
Last year, the U.S. Department of Defense conducted an assessment of PFAS contamination on U.S. military bases, indicating 24 installations, with a total population of 175,000, exposed residents to PFAS in drinking water. However, some environmental groups have contested that number, saying at least 116 military instillations are contaminated, exposing more than 640,000 residents to toxic AFFF and PFAS.
Given common questions of fact and law presented in thousands of firefighter foam lawsuits against AFFF manufacturers brought by individuals diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and different forms of cancer, coordinated pretrial proceedings have been established in the federal court system, where the claims are all centralized before U.S. District Judge Richard M. Gergel in the District of South Carolina, for discovery and a series of early bellwether trials.
Earlier this year, Judge Gergel directed the parties to select a group of 28 representative personal injury claims for an AFFF injury bellwether pool, involving plaintiffs who say they were exposed to chemicals that contaminated drinking water.
These cases will include eight kidney cancer claims, eight testicular cancer claims, eight thyroid disease claims and four ulcerative colitis claims. In addition, they will be limited to individuals alleging they were exposed to contaminated water near specific locations in Colorado and Pennsylvania where high levels of PFAS have been detected, including Colorado Springs Municipal Airport and Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the Willow Grove Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Montgomery County, Pennsyvania and the Naval Air Warfare Center in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
While the outcome of these claims will not have any binding impact on the other individual lawsuits, the average AFFF lawsuit payout may influence how much manufacturers may pay to settle lawsuits filed by Mitchell and other plaintiffs in the future.
In addition to individual lawsuits, the manufacturers also faced thousands of AFFF water contamination lawsuits by cities, states and municipalities nationwide.
In June 2023, 3M Company agreed to pay over $12.5 billion in an AFFF water contamination settlement, to resolve claims brought by local water suppliers. However, there have not been any reported settlements in AFFF lawsuits brought by former military service members or firefighters, and none of those individual claims have yet gone before a jury.
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