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Firefighter Wrongful Death Lawsuit Alleges Exposure to Fire Foam Caused Fatal Leukemia

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The wife of a former firefighter has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against a slew of chemical and safety equipment manufacturers, alleging that years of exposure to fire foam caused him to develop acute myeloid leuemia (AML), which ultimately resulted in his death.

Deidre Culhane filed the complaint (PDF) last week in the U.S. District Court for the District of Southern Carolina on behalf of herself and her late husband, David Culhane, who was exposed to aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) used to fight fuel-based fires over a nearly 40 year career.

The lawsuit indicates David Culhane worked for the Arlington Fire Department from 1979 to 2017, and was regularly exposed to the fire foam during training exercises and in response to live fire calls. However, just a year after he retired Culhane was diagnosed with AML, which resulted in his death months later.

“Slowly and tortuously, Mr. Culhane was overcome by the disease. On July 18, 2018, he finally succumbed to the cancer and passed away in the presence of his family,” the lawsuit states. “The last year of Mr. Culhane’s life could best be described as a perilous struggle against a disease whose origin was still a mystery to his family and him. It remained a mystery until October 2019, when Plaintiff discovered information about AFFF being a human carcinogen.”

The lawsuit names numerous manufacturers and distributors of AFFF fire fighting foam as defendants, including 3M Company, Tyco Fire Products, Chemguard, Buckeye Fire Equipment, National Foam, Inc. Kidde-Fenwal, Inc., E.I. Du Pont De Nemours and Company, the Chemours Company, Archroma U.S., Arkema, Inc., UTC Fire & Security Americas Corporation, Inc., United Technologies Corporation, and Chubb Fire, Ltd.

Fire Foam Health Concerns

Aqueous film-forming foam has been used for decades at military bases and by some civilian fire fighting organizations throughout the United States to fight petroleum-based fires which cannot be controlled or subdued by water alone.

The lawsuit indicates the fire foam is unreasonably dangerous for its intended use, since it contains Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), which are cancer-causing chemicals that are collectively known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

PFAS 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 firefighting foams, PFASs are chemical substances used to manufacture a number of products, including food packaging materials, pizza boxes, popcorn bags, fabrics, nonstick cooking pans, and other products. The firefighting foam has been regularly used at military bases nationwide over the past decade during routine fire extinguishing exercises, and is increasingly used by civilian firefighters.

The chemicals are projected to 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. Previous U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) studies have shown PFAS chemicals primarily settle into the blood, kidney and liver, and could likely be detected in the blood of 98% of the U.S. population.

In June 2019, a federal investigation found that PFAS chemicals are commonly found in numerous food products, including meats, seafood, chocolate, cake and other products. However, the FDA released a statement indicating that the levels found do not raise health concerns, based on the best available science.

According to findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2012, exposure may also suppress the immune system and limit the ability of the body to create antibodies in response to childhood vaccines.

In December 2018, all fire foam lawsuits filed in federal courts nationwide were centralized in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina for pretrial proceedings.

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