Disturbing Levels of Toxic Chemicals Found in the Blood of Firefighters

close up of a group of firefighters in uniform

The more scientists learn about the chemicals in firefighting foam, the greater the danger seems to be.

Aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) has been used for decades at military bases and airports around the country because it is so effective at suppressing fires where oil or gas is involved. Unfortunately, the toxic chemicals in AFFF do not break down. Instead, they leach into the water and food supply where humans are exposed to them in greater and greater concentrations.

The long-term risks of PFAS, as the group of toxic chemicals is known, are only starting to come into view. Earlier this year, the use of firefighting foam was tied to contamination that affects the drinking water of up to 110 million Americans.

Now, a new report has drawn attention to the firefighters who used AFFF and the disturbing level of PFAS found in their blood. Along with being significantly exposed to PFAS through the use of firefighting foam, it appears that they are also being exposed through contaminated equipment.

What Are the Dangers of PFAS?

PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are man-made chemicals used in a range of commercial and consumer products, such as stain repellant fabrics and chrome plating. In firefighting foam, PFAS help create an aqueous film over the flammable liquids (like oil or gas) that prevents fuel vapors from coming in contact with oxygen and igniting.

Environmental and public health advocates have raised the alarm about the global and long-term dangers of PFAS because they are toxic and persist in the environment. PFAS have been found in the blood, liver, and eggs of species in remote polar regions, thousands of miles from any source of contamination.

As PFAS are detected in greater concentrations in groundwater and enter the food supply, concern is growing because PFAS pass through wastewater treatment largely unhindered. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), human exposure to PFAS may increase a person’s risk of cancer, affect the immune system, and interfere with the body’s natural hormones.

Elevated Levels of PFAS Found in Younger Firefighters and Recruits

While environmental exposure to PFAS is frightening enough, it appears that firefighters who used PFAS-based firefighting foam may be in immediate danger. A recent report from IPEN found such firefighters had elevated levels of two PFAS chemicals in their blood.

IPEN is a network of non-governmental organizations focused on protecting public health by reducing and eliminating persistent organic pollutants, like PFAS. In the report, an expert panel said that firefighters could be significantly exposed to PFAS from firefighting foam directly during use through:

  • Inhalation
  • Ingestion
  • Skin absorption of aerosols and splashes

In addition, they found that firefighters can also be exposed to PFAS even when they are not using firefighting foam. Further exposure can occur during routine maintenance duties, such as:

  • Using contaminated personal protective equipment
  • Handling contaminated equipment
  • Managing PFAS foam wastes
  • Occupation of contaminated fire stations
  • Consumption of contaminated local water and produce

Firefighting foam is still being used, but few safeguards are in place to prevent firefighters from being exposed. “Elevated blood levels are found not just in long-serving personnel,” the report found, “but also in much younger firefighters and recruits who have never used or been trained with these foams.”

Indeed, the IPEN authors have described firefighters’ ongoing exposure as “a major occupational health issue with both political and trust implications for employers.”

Firefighters Were Not Warned About Risks of PFAS

Many of the sites with the worst PFAS-groundwater contamination are military sites where firefighters trained with foams. Congress has taken notice. If the National Defense Authorization Act passes as it is currently written, PFAS foams will be phased out by 2023.

While this is certainly a step in the right direction, the IPEN report highlights how immediate the dangers are to firefighters and other personnel who work in sites where firefighting foam was used. In response to the IPEN report, Environmental Working Group Senior Scientist David Andrews said

“Our firefighters and first responders are already asked to put themselves in harm’s way virtually every day.

Forcing them to use firefighting foams containing dangerous chemicals when there are alternatives that work puts their long-term health at unacceptable risk.”

Even in places where PFAS-based firefighting foams are no longer used, the threat of exposure lingers in the environment and in protective equipment.

Many of the firefighters now getting sick were never warned about the danger posed by firefighting foam. Now, long after the fire has died down, these heroes are struggling with kidney, testicular, and pancreatic cancer, along with a host of other troubling health effects.

If you or someone you know was exposed to firefighting foam and is now seriously ill, you may be eligible for compensation. Give us a call today, and we can help you figure out the next step.

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

The Sokolove Law Content Team is made up of writers, editors, and journalists. We work with case managers and attorneys to keep site information up to date and accurate. Our site has a wealth of resources available for victims of wrongdoing and their families.

Last modified: November 9, 2020

  1. Center for Disease Control, “Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) and Your Health: What Are the health effects?” Retrieved from https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/health-effects.html. Accessed on October 9, 2019.
  2. Environmental Working Group, “New Study Confirms High PFAS Blood Levels Among Firefighters.” Retrieved from https://www.ewg.org/release/ew-study-confirms-high-pfas-blood-levels-among-firefighters. Accessed on October 8, 2019.
  3. Environmental Working Group, “The 100 U.S. Military Sites With the Worst PFAS Contamination.” Retrieved from https://www.ewg.org/news-and-analysis/2019/10/100-us-military-sites-worst-pfas-contamination. Accessed on October 9, 2019.
  4. International POP Elimination Network, “Perfluorohexane Sulfonate (PFHxS)—Socio-Economic Impact, Exposure, And The Precautionary Principle.” Retrieved from https://ipen.org/sites/default/files/documents/pfhxs_socio-economic_impact_final_oct.2019.pdf. Accessed on October 8, 2019.