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Toxic ‘forever chemicals’ in AFFF firefighting foam

Jennifer Ellis, who represents a retired firefighter diagnosed with cancer linked to the long-term exposure of toxic firefighting foam during the course of his employment, explains why there are likely to be many more cases of firefighters similarly affected.

Posted on 11 January 2023

What are 'forever chemicals'?

'Forever chemicals' have been widely used across the globe since the 1940s. They comprise per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) which is the collective name given to a group of fluorinated compounds. PFAS are ubiquitous in nature due to their inability to break down in nature. The Environmental Agency report that the long history of their use has resulted in “a legacy of environmental contamination that is challenging to remediate”. Furthermore, the chemicals frequently labelled as “toxic” have been linked to health problems since the 1990s.

What is AFFF Foam?

Aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) is a synthetic-based foam used to extinguish flammable or combustible liquid fuel fires, such as blazes involving oil and gas (also known as Class B fires). AFFF was reportedly developed in the 1960s by chemical giant 3M before being used for many decades by Fire Departments internationally as the “gold standard” for extinguishing liquid fuel fires. Additionally, the substance was frequently used by fire brigades in training exercises.
Conversely, this once integral and life-saving substance is now deemed operationally dangerous by the international community and is being phased out globally. This is because the foam contains highly toxic “forever chemicals”.

Health Risks

The European Commission recently assigned the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) with the task of investigating the environmental and health risks posed by the use of per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in firefighting foams.

Their report dated 23 March 2022 confirmed that “there is evidence to suggest that exposure to PFASs can lead to adverse health effects in humans (by eating or drinking food or water contaminated by PFASs).

In particular the US EPA22 highlight studies that indicate the long-chain (chain length of eight or more) species PFOS and PFOA can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects on laboratory animals. Furthermore, both chemicals have caused tumours in animal studies”.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the EPA have linked PFAS to health problems, including:

  • Increases in cholesterol
  • High blood pressure and preeclampsia in pregnant women
  • Decreased response to vaccination in children
  • Immune system changes
  • Liver enzyme changes
  • Decreases in infant birth weight
  • Increased risk of certain cancers, including kidney and testicular cancer
    Thyroid disorders

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) also identify that PFAS in AFFF are toxic and carcinogenic to animals and potentially to humans. They have conducted several studies which found that human exposure to PFAS results in a significantly increased rate of kidney, prostate and testicular cancer. Accordingly, AFFF is considered an occupational hazard which has been linked to cancers and other health concerns.

Regulation of AFFF

Historically, a key ingredient of AFFF was Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS) which is a type of PFA subsequently found to be toxic.
Scientists and health experts have communicated their concerns with the potential hazards of exposure to PFAS since the 1970s.
More recently, the global community has begun to acknowledge the potential damage “forever chemicals” are causing to the environment and to human health and a movement ensued to restrict their use.
Nevertheless, it was not until 2002 that the manufacture of PFOS was largely discontinued, when US manufacturer 3M, ceased production.
Thereafter, in May 2009, PFOS were included in Annex B of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) which restricted the manufacture, import and export of PFOS.
Following the discontinuance of PFOS based foaming agents, fire departments relied on foam containing fluorinated and hydrocarbon-based products. However, these foaming agents contain PFOAs which are a different type of PFA. In May 2019 further restrictions were implemented under the Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Regulation (EU) 2019/1021 in respect of the use of PFOAs and PFOAs were added to Annex A of the convention to be eliminated

Current changes to legislation

In keeping with EU Regulations, since July 4, 2020 the following has been required:

  • All existing stocks of AFFF containing PFOA installed in a premises may only be used for Class B fires (the burning of flammable liquids).
  • Use of AFFF containing PFOA is prohibited for training purposes.
  • Testing of equipment/systems of AFFF containing PFOA is only allowed if releases are contained and can be properly disposed of.

Since 01 January 2023 fire-fighting foam containing PFOAs have been prohibited if the foam cannot be contained or collected after a fire has been extinguished. From July 2025, there will be a total ban on the use of fire-fighting foam containing PFOA. The fire-fighting industry has long required environmentally friendly, non-toxic foaming agents but it is only now that the industry is recognising the potential benefits in switching to 'fluorine free' foams.
Although the initiative to restrict the use of AFFF is relatively new, as mentioned above, concerns have been raised about the use of 'forever chemicals' since the 1970s.
A valid question arising from this information is why has it taken so long for this potentially harmful substance to be banned? The answer is unclear but one possible explanation is that manufacturers of AFFF may have knowingly sought to prioritise monetary gains at the expense of the wider public health concerns. 

US Class Actions

Class actions in the USA have been instigated against manufacturers of AFFF. The cases suggest that manufacturers of AFFF which include 3M and DuPont knew or ought to have known that the substances caused an elevated risk of cancers. It has been suggested that manufacturers became aware of the health implications of long-term exposure to PFAs in the 1990s.
The City of Stuart on the Atlantic Coast of Florida alleges that AFFF used during training exercises by fireman contaminated its water supply and as a result the city is suing manufacturers of AFFF (including 3M) for their failure to warn, amongst other allegations. The trial is set to begin on June 5, 2023.
As of 15 December 2022, a total of 3,399 AFFF (firefighting foam) class action cases had been filed in the USA. The nature of these cases is two-fold: 

  • Claims are brought on behalf of fire fighters who claim prolonged exposure to the AFFF Foam has caused them to develop cancer.
  • Claims are also brought on behalf of individuals adversely effected by contamination of PFAS into their water.

Initially, 3M sought to argue that they should be immune from liability because the AFFF products were produced in keeping with a government contract. In September 2022, the Court rejected their defence as 3M withheld information from the government about the potential health risks of AFFF. It is not yet clear how these cases will pan out, but it is possible that claims of a similar nature could be brought through the UK Courts.

Do I have a claim?

Occupational AFFF Exposure

Individuals who have worked with AFFF on a regular basis may have a claim if such exposure has caused them to develop an illness linked with long term exposure.
We would encourage individuals who believe that they have been experiencing health problems associated with long term exposure to AFFF to email Tina Patel

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Tina Patel

Tina Patel is a partner in the consumer law team.