Hazardous PFOA/PFAS Chemical Contamination of Water Sources
Aqueous film-forming foam, known as AFFF, has long been a product heavily relied on by firefighters, military, and airport personnel for use in extinguishing fires caused by hydrocarbon fuels. However, the product is linked to cancer and other serious health conditions caused by toxic chemicals in the foam.
One of the most dangerous ingredients is perfluorooctanoic acid, known as PFOA, which can result in contamination of soil, groundwater, and even community drinking water in areas near where the foam was used to put out fires or in firefighter training.
If you have a health condition that resulted from PFOA contamination, an experienced attorney can help you understand your legal options for recovering damages related to your illness.
What Is PFOA?
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is among the most commonly researched chemical compounds included in a group of several thousand manmade chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are manmade chemicals that are known for their ability to withstand high heat and repel both water and oil. These chemicals have been used since the 1950s and are found in many everyday products, including carpets, clothing, non-stick pans, paints, polishes, cleaning products, and food packaging.
Beginning in the 1960s, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory researched different firefighting chemicals, eventually developing the PFOA-containing AFFF. By 1979, AFFF was in use in more than 90 airports in the U.S., as well as by many civilian fire departments. Unfortunately, the companies that manufacture the foam have long known—or reasonably should have known—that PFOA is toxic and can lead to serious health conditions. Despite this knowledge, the foam continued to be manufactured and widely used, leading to contamination in many areas of the nation, particularly on or near military bases.
Measurable amounts of PFOA were discovered in the drinking water in at least 29 states. The Department of Defense has announced plans to study 664 military sites to assess PFOA contamination caused by firefighting foam.
Water contamination is the most common source of PFOA exposure, and this contamination is so prevalent in both drinking water and commonly used products that most individuals may have low levels of the substance in their bodies. PFAS are known as forever chemicals due to their long half-life and their ability to remain in soils or the body for a long time. Even low-levels of exposure to PFOA and other PFAS can be harmful to humans, though those who were exposed to higher levels of the chemicals are generally most affected.
Health Conditions Caused by PFOA Water Contamination
In May 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a lifetime health advisory regarding PFOA after animal studies and data from large groups of people revealed the harmful effects of the chemical. Because this class of chemical compounds does not exit the body quickly, the chemical accumulates in bodily organs.
Some of the health conditions caused by PFOA in drinking water may include:
Preeclampsia, which is dangerously high blood pressure during pregnancy that, if left untreated, can cause maternal and fetal death
What Is Being Done to Prevent PFOA Water Contamination?
The EPA has long known about the potential hazards of PFOA water contamination. According to information gathered by the activist organization Environmental Working Group, the EPA began monitoring the studies that were being conducted by firefighting foam manufacturer 3M, who informed the federal agency of rat studies that it had conducted that revealed liver damage as a result of exposure to PFAS chemicals.
Later, the EPA learned of secret studies that were conducted by another manufacturer, DuPont, the developer of products such as Teflon, which also contains the potentially harmful chemicals.
In 2002, the EPA began a priority review of one of the PFAS chemicals known to damage organs in animal studies, PFOA. In 2005, the agency fined DuPont $10.25 million for failing to disclose the substantial risk of injury to human health because it had not informed the agency of its knowledge that PFOA could result in cancer, liver damage, and other adverse health outcomes.
The following year, the agency negotiated with 3M, DuPont, and other companies to phase out the use of PFOA and PFOS, two of the chemicals in the PFAS family that are the most widely studied. At the time, the EPA stressed to the public that it “was not aware of any studies specifically relating current levels of PFOA exposure to human health effects.”
In 2006, the EPA told consumers that it was safe to use products that contain PFAS while also fining 3M more than $1.5 million in penalties. That year, the EPA science advisory board also composed a draft report, finding that PFOA was a “likely human carcinogen.” Three years later, the agency published a provisional health advisory for PFOA and PFOS. That year, the EPA also published a proposed action plan on the monitoring and regulation of the production of the chemicals.
In 2012, the EPA began requiring one-time monitoring of public water systems to detect contamination of the drinking water consumed by millions of Americans. In 2015, the agency proposed a significant new use rule (SNUR) to control the use of PFAS chemicals in products to take effect by 2020. In 2016, the agency set a non-enforceable health advisory that recommended a maximum contamination level in water supplies of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS. It should be noted that this level is far above what independent researchers consider a safe exposure level.
In 2019, the EPA imposed a self-assigned deadline by year's end to set an enforceable legal limit of the amount of PFOA in drinking water. The agency missed its own deadline.
Numerous states have put forth their own guidelines for regulating PFOA and other PFAS chemicals. Those states include:
The EPA is reportedly working with, and providing funding to, individual states that have discovered high levels of PFOA water contamination within their borders, to develop remediation plans to clean up contaminated waterways and monitor human exposure to the chemicals.
U.S. military branches have also begun to take the risk of PFOA exposure seriously, developing programs to replace AFFF with products that do not contain as many of the PFAS chemicals and to reduce the use of AFFF during training exercises. Studies of the effects of PFOA water contamination in or near hundreds of military bases is ongoing.
Lawsuits Filed Against Manufacturers of Products Containing PFOA
The first known lawsuit to be filed over PFOA exposure in the U.S. was filed against DuPont in 1998 by a farming family who reported that their cattle had died due to exposure to PFOA from sludge in a nearby landfill. The lawsuit settled in 2001 for an undisclosed amount, and the information garnered from that lawsuit was later used in a class action lawsuit filed in 2001 on behalf of 80,000 people who lived in districts where PFOA had contaminated water supplies.
Over the ensuing years, DuPont paid hundreds of millions of dollars for the medical monitoring of tens of thousands of people in affected areas as well as cash settlements in thousands of lawsuits filed in the U.S.
As time has passed and the potential effects of PFOA contamination in drinking water have become more widely known, the lawsuits over toxic exposure began to pile up.
In 2018, an Ohio firefighter filed a class action lawsuit against 3M, DuPont, Chemours, and several other manufacturers on behalf of everyone in the United States who was exposed to PFAS chemicals.
Instead of cash penalties, the suit sought to force the companies to create an independent scientific panel to thoroughly study and confirm the health effects that PFOA exposure can cause.
Past and ongoing lawsuits have made numerous allegations against these manufacturers, including the companies:
Failed to initiate studies that would give a full picture of the health effects of AFFF-related PFOA contamination to water supplies consumed by humans.
Knew or should have known that these chemicals remained in the body for a long time, causing a dangerous buildup in bodily organs.
Failed to warn the public in affected areas that they were likely to be exposed to PFOA.
Failed to market a product that was safe for consumer use when used as labeled.
Withheld information about the protective gear firefighters need to use when working around the chemical to avoid dangerous exposure.
Failed to issue recalls or safety warnings about the potential effects of PFOA exposure from firefighting foam.
What to Do if You Have Acquired a PFOA-Related Condition
If you have been exposed to PFOA through water contamination as a result of AFFF use, you could be eligible to recover damages related to your diagnosis through one of several multi-district litigation lawsuits that are currently accepting new cases. However, the process involves several steps, the most important one that you continue to seek medical care and information about your diagnosis.
The other steps include:
Gather evidence related to your exposure and diagnosis. This evidence can include publicized results of the level of PFOA contaminants in your local drinking water supplies, proof that you consumed contaminated drinking water for a length of time, information doctors provided you about your diagnosis, receipts of health-related expenses that you have incurred because of your diagnosis, documentation on the income you have lost due because your illness prevented you from working, and other pertinent information.
Speak with an attorney with experience in PFOA cases. Most of these attorneys provide free consultations to prospective clients and work on a contingent fee basis, meaning they do not get paid for their services until there is a successful outcome to the case. This means that anyone who has suffered adverse health outcomes as a result of PFOA exposure and needs legal representation can afford it, regardless of their financial condition.
Make informed decisions about your legal options with the guidance of an experienced attorney who can evaluate your case based on the physical harm you incurred as a result of exposure to PFOA and the medical expenses and life impacts that have resulted from your illness; the timely filing of your case in the proper jurisdiction; negotiation of a fair settlement on your behalf as well as guidance as to the benefits and downside of accepting any settlement offer you receive; litigation of your case in lieu of a fair settlement offer; assistance collecting your settlement or court award; and continued representation of your case if the defendant files an appeal.
This article was written and reviewed by Matthew Dolman. Matt has been a practicing civil trial, personal injury, products liability, and mass tort lawyer since 2004. He has represented over 11,000 injury victims and has served as lead counsel in over 1000 lawsuits. Matt is a lifetime member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum and Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum for resolving individual cases in excess or $1 million and $2 million, respectively. He has also been selected by his colleagues as a Florida Superlawyer and as a member of Florida’s Legal Elite on multiple occasions. Further, Matt has been quoted in the media numerous times and is a sought-after speaker on a variety of legal issues and topics.