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Veterans Law

Firefighting Foam Health Effects and VA Disability Benefits

September 11, 2020
sailors mopping AFFF firefighting foam on Navy ship

What is Firefighting Foam?

Generally speaking, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a large class of man-made chemical compounds found in a wide range of consumer products such as nonstick pans, polishes, waxes, paints, and cleaning solutions.  Importantly, PFAS are also present in firefighting foam, or aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) used by both civilian and military firefighters.  These chemicals are persistent, meaning they do not break down in the environment.

Does the Department of Defense (DoD) Use Firefighting Foam?

In the 1970s, the Department of Defense (DoD) began using AFFF to fight fuel fires.  DoD later recognized that the release of PFAS into the environment during training and emergency responses for firefighting is a major source of contamination in the groundwater on military bases.  As a result, those who live either on or near military bases have become increasingly concerned as to whether PFAS-contaminated groundwater is present and if there are any health concerns associated with exposure.

Which Military Installations Are Affected?

DoD has identified 401locations in the U.S. with one or more areas at which there was a known or suspected release of PFAS, including both active installations and those that have or are undergoing Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC).  Within those 401 locations, there are an established 36 sites with drinking water contamination on base, and more than 90 sites that reported either on-base or off-base drinking water or groundwater contamination, in which the water source tested above the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) acceptable levels of PFAS (i.e., 70 parts per trillion).  DoD is first targeting the 36 direct drinking water sources that are contaminated to cease human exposure as soon as possible.  So far, DoD has only been able to do cut off contaminated water at 24 of the 36 locations where it manages the water supply.

At these sites, DoD has installed filters at the water source or inside base housing, relocated water usage to another well, or provided alternate drinking water, such as bottles, for personnel.  The other 12 sites have water sources provided by contracted vendors, which makes it harder for DoD to intervene.  However, DoD is reportedly working with vendors on a solution, and providing bottled water or filters as needed.  Each installation is working to have water information posted on the base, and families with concerns can talk to the base’s restoration program manager (i.e., an on-site point person tasked with addressing environmental clean-up issues).

DoD and EPA’s Response to PFAS Exposure

DoD is currently investigating the extent of PFAS contamination on its bases and is taking several actions to protect against future exposure.  Furthermore, the EPA is responsible for establishing regulations for the presence of potentially harmful substances in air and drinking water in the U.S.  According to VA, PFAS are not currently regulated by EPA; however, EPA has several activities underway to learn more about the toxicity of PFAS, designate this class of substances as hazardous in order to initiate clean up, and create drinking water standards where indicated.

Health Problems Associated with Firefighting Foam

According to the EPA, PFAS can be detected in the blood of most people.  As such, veterans and service members have begun asking the military for blood testing to determine the presence of such chemicals.  So far, all requests have been denied as the military states that too little is known about PFAS and their effects to make the results of any testing useful.  Instead, the military will reportedly pay for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to start years-long population-based health studies in some communities.

Nonetheless, VA acknowledges that the likelihood of health problems from PFAS depends on several factors, including the concentration, frequency, and duration of exposure.  According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, some studies in humans suggest that certain PFAS may be associated with the following:

  • Fertility issues and pregnancy-induced hypertension/pre-eclampsia
  • Increased cholesterol
  • Changes in the immune system
  • Increased risk of certain cancers (e.g., testicular and kidney cancer)
  • Changes in fetal and child development
  • Liver damage
  • Increased risk of thyroid disease
  • Increased risk of asthma

Nonetheless, VA maintains that the overall scientific and medical evidence is currently inconclusive.

A well-known chemical company, DuPont, has been at the center of many exposure-related cases involving PFAS.  DuPont conducted medical research on PFAS as far back as the 1960s.  Their early findings showed liver damage and birth defects in animals exposed to PFAS.  From there, DuPont reviewed the births of its employees’ children and found two birth defects out of seven recent births within the review time period.  In the 1990s, DuPont became aware that C8 (i.e., perfluorooctanoic acid), a chemical contained in PFAS, caused testicular cancer, pancreatic cancer, and liver tumors in lab animals.

VA Disability Benefits for Health Problems Linked to PFAS Exposure

VA does not currently consider any health conditions to be presumptively associated with PFAS exposure.  Veterans may still file a claim for disability compensation for health problems they believe are related to in-service exposure to the chemicals, but must satisfy all of the elements of service connection, including: (1) a current, diagnosed disability; (2) an in-service event, injury, or illness; and (3) a medical nexus between the current disability and the in-service event, injury, or illness.  Importantly, VA will decide these claims on a case-by-case basis.

Firefighting Foam Alternatives

As of now, there are very few alternatives to AFFF, or firefighting foam.  However, the 3M Corporation recently developed a fluorine-free foam that is equivalent in performance when putting out jet fuel fires as compared to AFFF.  The military has yet to adopt the PFAS-free forms of firefighting alternatives.