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North Carolina sues 14 firefighting foam manufacturers, claim foam is unsafe for firefighters

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Adam Wagner and Jonathan Limehouse

The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

The North Carolina Department of Justice filed suit Thursday against more than a dozen manufacturers of firefighting foam that contains toxic “forever chemicals,” accusing the companies of failing to tell those using the foam how to properly handle it, leading to groundwater contamination at four sites across the state.N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein announced the lawsuits at a Charlotte briefing alongside members of the Charlotte International Association of Fire Fighters Local 660 and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

“We want the companies that manufactured this product, knew or should have known of its risks and then sold it to either the local government for the firefighters or the federal government to pay to clean up the PFAS and remove the risk to North Carolinians,” Stein told The News & Observer.

The lawsuit’s claims against 14 manufacturers of Aqueous Film Forming Foam, also known as AFFF, include public nuisance, design defect and failure to warn end users like airports and firefighters. The state is seeking damages to cover the cost of cleanup and removal, water treatment, well replacement and monitoring.

“PFAS are toxic, persistent and mobile in the environment,” Stein said during Thursday’s briefing. “These companies lined their own pockets at the expense of people’s health. It’s unlawful and I’m going to court to put a stop to it.”

The lawsuits, which were filed in county Superior Courts Thursday, are the second to emerge from the attorney general’s ongoing investigation of PFAS in North Carolina. The previous lawsuit, filed against the chemical companies Chemours and DuPont, alleged that DuPont spun off its performance chemical line because it knew of the risks posed by GenX and other chemicals and wanted to limit its potential losses. Chemours, DuPont and 3M are also among the defendants in the foam lawsuit.

PFAS are valuable chemicals, prized for their water resistance and durability. But those same traits mean that they build up in humans over time. Scientists have linked PFAS to a wide range of health effects, including certain cancers, high cholesterol and a weakened immune system.

The chemicals are “in our bodies,” and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says most Americans have PFAS in their blood, Stein said.

Aqueous Film Forming Foam, often known as AFFF, is created by mixing a substance that resembles laundry detergent with water. That substance carries substantial amounts of PFOA and PFOS, two PFAS chemicals that have largely been phased out of other aspects of life.

When sprayed onto a fire, the foam is highly effective at tamping down flames, particularly in risky situations like plane crashes. The material has been in use for more than six decades, and many departments across the country still use it instead of alternatives.

AFFF in North Carolina

Despite the risks, the Federal Aviation Authority requires that most airports use AFFF. In 2018, Congress passed legislation requiring the FAA to allow airports to use other kinds of foam, but the agency has missed an October 2021 deadline to change its standards.

The four sites identified in the North Carolina lawsuits are the Air National Guard base at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, the Charlotte Police and Fire Training Academy, Goldsboro’s Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and the Air National Guard Base at Stanly County Airport.

In 2017, the Air Force found combined PFOA and PFOS levels of 312,000 parts per trillion (ppt) at Seymour Johnson. That’s more than 4,450 times greater than the 70 parts per trillion that the EPA says people can tolerate without harming their health.

At the Charlotte Police and Fire Training Academy, forever chemicals were detected in 17 different groundwater wells at concentrations more than 1,800 times the EPA’s health advisory level.

Stein did not rule out adding locations to the lawsuit, or perhaps filing additional lawsuits.

“We have the data that shows the high concentrations of PFAS at these four locations,” he said. “As we learn more and gather more data about other locations, we will take action as appropriate.”

Hundreds of lawsuits similar to those filed Thursday in North Carolina have been combined into multi-district litigation in the U.S. District Court of South Carolina.

Stein said manufacturers should have taken steps like telling purchasers about the risks posed by the foam, telling firefighters how they could limit the spread of the foam, including creating barriers that would block the foam’s spread once it is mixed with water.

“They were willing to put the health and well being of the people of North Carolina at risk in order to make more money. That’s absolutely unconscionable,” Stein said, “and because of the damage they’ve done to our natural resources, the burden to cleaning that up should be on them.”

North Carolina residents who drink water from municipal systems have the benefit of their cities testing their water regularly, but Stein said “folks with well water don’t have that assurance.”

“We encourage anybody who lives on well water to get that water tested,” he said. “You don’t want anyone in your family to get sick.”

On Wednesday, Stein’s office made a $50,000 grant to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte because more than 35,000 residents in Gaston County draw their water from unregulated private wells. Residents will be able to upload any chemicals found in their well water to a public dashboard, alerting neighbors and encouraging them to get their water tested.

PFAS risk to firefighters

While Thursday’s lawsuits focus on the impact of AFFF and PFAS on groundwater, firefighters wonder how the persistent chemicals are affecting them.

Shane Nantz, the historian of Charlotte’s Local 660 firefighter’s union, worked at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport for years, following in the footsteps of his father, also a longtime firefighter.

When using AFFF, Nantz recalled, firefighters were told not to get it in their mouths because it would cause diarrhea.

“We would wade in it and we would have it all over us,” said Nantz, who added that PFAS are also often used to treat firefighter gear in order to make it more water-resistant.

Nantz cannot recall a time when he was told about the risks posed by the soap-like foam.

Tom Brewer, president of Local 660, said in 2017 there were 43 active Charlotte firefighters diagnosed with cancer, a number that was particularly alarming because people in the department retire when they turn 50. Nantz’s father was diagnosed with kidney cancer after retiring from the fire department despite there being no family history of similar cancers.

“You don’t want to save a life at the expense of someone else’s life,” Brewer said.

Since the 1970s, firefighting foams containing PFAS have been manufactured and sold to fire departments, Brewer said during Thursday’s briefing. Documents from the 1980s and 1990s suggest manufacturers knew foams with PFAS were harmful, but the dangers of the chemicals weren’t disclosed until the early 2000s, he said.

As of 2021, occupational cancer has become the number one killer of firefighters, Brewer said.

“Our cancer rates rise every year,” he said. “The data is clear, the firefighting foams we use are poisoning us, all of us. It’s heartbreaking, it’s unacceptable and it must end. We have buried too many firefighters, not one more.”

This story was produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.

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