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Cancer forced firefighter Ben Brickhouse to retire

Toxic Firefighting Foam is Still Used in the U.S. Despite Calls for a Ban.

This is one of the stories about firefighters’ cancer risks.

Ben Brickhouse came to his career as a late bloomer. In December 2003, when he was 41, he took a vacation to Asheville, North Carolina, and fell in love with the mountain town. He decided not only to stay, but to become a firefighter.

His plans to work 20 years and retire at 61 were thwarted by a routine test in the summer of 2020: the prostate specific antigen (PSA) level, which often indicates prostate cancer, was abnormally high. When further tests confirmed the disease, Brickhouse decided to have his prostate removed.

“I thought I was going to have the surgery, get healed, get better and go back to work,” Brickhouse said. “I was only expecting to be off for, like, 45 days.”

After 16 years on the job, fireman Ben Brickhouse of Asheville, North Carolina, was forced to resign due to cancer. Brickhouse, seen at his garage workshop, sued the city for workers’ compensation benefits, claiming the cancer was caused by his job, and received a settlement.

But after the surgery, his PSA level never dropped to zero and began to rise again. A scan confirmed that the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. He required three rounds of proton radiation and two years of Lupron hormone treatments, which finally put his firefighting career to an end.

It wasn’t until he retired for health reasons and sued the city of Asheville to recover compensation, that he learned of the link between the cancer in firefighters and a widely used firefighting foam: aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF. The foam contained toxic chemicals called PFAS. He was thinking about the dozens of Asheville firefighters who had died of cancer over the last two decades, and the half-dozen active-duty firefighters who have been diagnosed with cancer since 2017.

He recalled the streams of white, soapy foam he had splashed almost daily during his seven months of rookie training – and during monthly drills, continuing education courses, and tests of new equipment.

afff foam

The foam often leaked from the fire trucks. “We then had to mop it up off the floor with a rag or something similar. The foam was very concentrated at that point,” Brickhouse said. “I tried to wear gloves because it’s darn difficult to get the foam off your skin”

The Asheville Fire Department has since enacted stricter restrictions on contact with AFFF foam, but continues to use the foam to fight fires. Brickhouse wonders why it hasn’t been banned.

His question is a national issue that has concerned fire department executives and crews, health professionals and environmentalists for years. Growing research shows that high concentrations of PFAS chemicals can impair the immune system and cause kidney, testicular and other cancers. More recently, the discovery that the same chemicals are also present in firefighters’ protective suits has caused a stir and posed further risks. But PFAS-laden foam and protective suits are still in use at many fire stations, even though cancer is now the leading cause of death among firefighters, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Earlier this year, the association announced that of the 469 firefighter deaths in the United States and Canada that were classified as “line-of-duty” or work-related in the past two years, 348 – or nearly three-quarters – were due to cancer.

Why is it so hard to get rid of foam?

Retired firefighter Ben Brickhouse, of Asheville, North Carolina – shown in his garage at home – said many firefighters still are not aware of the cancer risks of their profession. He said he was clueless about it himself until a prostate cancer diagnosis.

The discovery of this miracle foam

The story of AFFF began more than 80 years ago, when the first of a new class of fluorochemicals was accidentally developed by chemists at DuPont. The chemicals’ strong carbon bonds made them virtually impenetrable and so pliable that everything just slid off. They also did not degrade in the environment for many years.

DuPont patented one of the chemicals, called it Teflon, and used it to make the first non-stick cookware. Other manufacturers followed suit, and soon these so-called “eternal chemicals” were everywhere in numerous products, including makeup, shampoo, carpets, paints, varnishes, clothing and boots.

Firefighting foam was fomally added to the arsenal, after one of the biggest tragedies in US Navy history. The USS Forrestal supercarrier was sent to North Vietnam in 1967 to give extra airpower. A power surge triggered the launch of a rocket, which collided with a fuel tank and exploded nine explosives. Skyhawk jet pilot and future U.S. Senator John McCain narrowly avoided injury, but 134 sailors were killed and 161 were injured. The catastrophe triggered a complete overhaul of the Navy’s firefighting procedures.

Navy scientists had spent years collaborating with 3M to create a fire-fighting foam. Military standards called for a “fluorinated surfactant” to suffocate high-hazard liquid-fuel flames. Using PFAS chemicals, 3M successfully created the foam. When combined with water and released, it swiftly spread, doused flames, and stopped them from relighting.

On July 29, 1967, the US Navy destroyer USS Rupertus stood by to help the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal while the Forrestal battled deck flames and explosions in the Gulf of Tonkin. The incident prompted the Navy to review its firefighting procedures. Photographer: US Navy

Because of its better performance, the Department of Defense mandated the use of AFFF in all aircraft hangars, airfields, and aircraft fuelling stations. It was implemented by the Federal Aviation Administration for all commercial airports, and militaries and airports across the world followed suit.

Few questioned if the miracle foam carried any problems since few people outside of the business were aware of the possible hazards, and it remained that way for years. Within a decade of its release, however, researchers began to notice significant, potentially lethal side effects.

When Risks Became widely Known

3M researchers discovered that PFAS compounds linked to proteins in human blood and remained in the body as early as 1950. Later investigations on lab animals revealed that PFAS exposure was hazardous and caused kidney and liver issues. By the early 1980s, a study of pregnant DuPont employees, who also made the foam, discovered higher PFAS levels in their blood; two of the eight infants delivered had birth abnormalities. According to Jamie DeWitt, a toxicology professor at East Carolina University who has examined the subject, 3M, the original AFFF maker, did not publicly reveal the more than 1,000 internal PFAS tests it conducted or the results until decades later.

“Some of these companies had toxicity data they never published in the scientific literature until they had already made the decision to phase the chemicals out,” said DeWitt. “One of the first papers about their toxicity came out in 2004. 3M had made the decision to phase PFAS out of Scotchgard.”

A federal court in the combined litigation of thousands of claims against PFAS producers found in September 2022 that the US government was unaware the foam included PFOS, a member of the PFAS family, until 3M indicated in 2000 that it would transition to a non-PFAS carbon chain in its products. 3M does not deny that it did not disclose that the foam contains PFAS, but it claims that it produced the foam as a government contractor, which restricts a manufacturer’s culpability. Other chemical and foam makers filled the hole left by 3M. Although PFAS-containing foam has not been manufactured since 2015, chemical firms and fire departments still have substantial stocks of AFFF and use it.

A sign outside a 3M Co. plant.

Meanwhile, data suggests that PFAS compounds in firefighting foam may cause cancer or, in conjunction with smoke and poisons from burning materials, increase the chance of developing cancer.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health published a significant research in 2013 that examined cancer rates among 30,000 Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco firemen from 1950 to 2009. It discovered that firemen are 9% more likely than the general population to be diagnosed with cancer and 14% more likely to die from it.

The World Health Organization’s cancer research department upgraded firefighting to “Group 1 – carcinogenic to humans” in June. According to its evaluation of research, firemen are more likely to get bladder cancer and mesothelioma, as well as colon, prostate, testicular, and skin cancers, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The hazards are many, and include smoke from flames, chemicals in foam, and diesel exhaust.

However, the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has stated that additional study is required to assess how dangerous PFAS compounds are. Not all research included the same populations, substances, or levels of exposure. Thousands of man-made PFAS compounds have been detected in the blood of humans and animals, as well as in food, water, air, fish, and soil all over the world.

3M said in December that it will stop producing PFAS chemicals and stop using them in its products by the end of 2025, citing a “rapidly evolving external regulatory and business landscape.”

Who is most at risk of developing cancer from PFAS?

Those most at risk of acquiring cancer from PFAS include firemen and those who routinely use or handle PFAS-containing items.

Military and airport firemen, who are more likely to have greater levels of PFAS in their blood, may be more vulnerable.

This is most likely due to frequent PFAS exposure when fighting high-intensity jet fuel and petroleum-based fires common at airports, military sites, and other comparable locations.

For decades, the federal government mandated the use of PFAS-containing firefighting foam at airports.

Who Can File a PFAS Cancer Lawsuit?

You may be eligible to file a PFAS cancer lawsuit if you or a loved one suffered exposure to the dangerous chemicals while working as a firefighter and were later diagnosed with cancer.

Get free help determining your eligibility to take legal action. Call (855) 389-0031 now to get started.

2 thoughts on “Toxic Firefighting Foam is Still Used in the U.S. Despite Calls for a Ban.”

  1. Pingback: Former Firefighters : little AFFF Can Lead to Serious Consequences.

  2. Pingback: Linking Cancer Cases Among Georgia Firefighters to Hazardous Chemical Used in Firefighting Duties

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