Firefighter exposure to cancer causing chemicals is a serious issue. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a large family of man-made chemical compounds that can be found in firefighting foam and turnout gear. Two PFAS compounds, perfluorooctane acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), were often in firefighting aqueous film forming foam (AFFF). These chemicals enter the body in different ways. Toxicologists call these pathways of exposure. Firefighting foam chemicals create three pathways of exposure to firefighters – dermal, inhalation, and ingestion.
Firefighters Absorb PFAS Through the Skin
Scientific studies reveal that firefighters absorb PFASs through the skin during their work. Firefighter turnout gear is coated with PFAS for its fire-retardant properties. However, these chemicals get absorbed into the skin of firefighters during use. Because the turnout gear is heavy and insulated, many firefighters wear limited clothing under their gear. Their skin comes into direct contact with the chemical coating in the gear. Compounding the risks, regular cleaning of turnout gear increases the absorption of chemicals through skin contact.
Firefighter Exposure Through Inhalation
Firefighters inhale PFAS chemicals into their lungs not only while using the foam, but also because the chemicals accumulate in the firehouses and fumes linger over the fire sights after use. A scientific study of PFAS in firehouses showed that these chemicals accumulate in the living quarters and circulate in the dust. This toxic dust is resuspended by HVAC systems. Firefighters breath these chemicals into the lungs.
Additionally, after a fire has been extinguished with AFFF, the toxic chemicals continue to linger for several days around the fire area. This means firefighters on site after the fire is extinguished may breathe in toxic chemicals by remaining around the site or investigating the cause of the fire.
It is true that firefighters usually wear respirators during active fire response which protects their lungs from fumes. However, because firefighters did not know the chemicals in foam were carcinogenic, they often did not wear protective gear during training with the foam or at other times when using the foam casually. Firefighters have reported spraying the foam on fire trucks to clean them. Firefighters reported spraying the foam for community events or festivities, having no knowledge of foam toxicity.
Firefighters Ingest PFAS
Because AFFF chemicals accumulate in firehouses where they live, it is highly likely firefighters routinely ingest these chemicals when eating and drinking. Toxic dust on counters, furniture, and bedding are all sources of exposure to dust in firefighter residences.
Firefighter Exposure Lawsuits
Many firefighters who were exposed to PFAS chemicals have filed lawsuits against the manufactures of the firefighting foam and the turnout gear. The federal courts consolidated most of these lawsuits into the AFFF Litigation. The court is overseeing pre-trial discovery and motion practice to prepare the cases for trial. It is expected that the court will set trials to allow the parties to determine the relative strengths and weaknesses of the claims to inform and encourage the parties to enter into a global settlement.