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The City of Tallahassee, Florida, is the latest in a growing number of communities nationwide to claim chemicals from firefighting foam contaminated water supplies, indicating manufacturers disregarded the risk aqueous film-forming foams (AFFFs) used to fight petroleum-based fires may leach into groundwater and drinking water, especially near military bases, airports and other training locations.
The complaint (PDF) was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina on June 4, naming 3M Company, Tyco Fire Products and a host of other chemical and safety equipment manufacturers as defendants, claiming their production of firefighter foam and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contributed to the drinking water contamination in Tallahassee.
For decades, the companies manufactured and sold firefighter foam products that contained number of different PFAS compounds, including perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which are commonly described as “forever chemicals,” since they are persistent, toxic, bioaccumulative and do not naturally breakdown.
In 2019, the city conducted a site reconnaissance of its Fire Training Division, which was used for firefighter training programs. Investigators found levels of PFOS and PFOA in groundwater, which was above cleanup target levels, and high concentrations were also found in the soil which were above soil cleanup levels as well, according to the lawsuit.
“A principal purpose of this lawsuit is to hold Defendants liable for the costs the Plaintiff has incurred, and expects to incur, to clean up the groundwater and soil contamination caused by the AFFF and its PFOA/PFOS-containing products manufactured by Defendants which they introduced into the stream of commerce,” Tallahassee’s lawsuit states. “Such costs include all necessary funds to investigate, monitor, assess, evaluate, remediate, abate, or contain contamination of soil and groundwater resources that are polluted with PFOA and/or PFOS.”
Firefighter Foam Chemicals Cause Health Concerns
Experts indicate 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.
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.