PFOS and PFOA: Investigating Emerging Contaminants of Concern

Many of the research cases that we work on involve hazardous contaminants in soil or groundwater. Increasingly, that includes research into the usage and disposal of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). These chemicals are part of a larger group of chemicals called polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also called perfluorocarbons (PFC). 

Before manufacturing ceased during the 2000s, as awareness of their potential hazards became more widespread, PFOS and PFOA were used in a variety of end products, including stain repellents, coated papers, and non-stick cookware. However, in terms of environmental impact beyond manufacturing plants, a key focus of scientists and law firms in recent years has been their usage in firefighting foam.                                                                  

Newer jet fuel fire training facilities have been designed to capture wastewater for treatment. Older facilities in use through the 1980s were often crude and allowed AFFF to enter groundwater. The U.S. military adopted a variety of foam suppressants as AFFF was withdrawn from service. Source: U.S. Air Force.

Newer jet fuel fire training facilities have been designed to capture wastewater for treatment. Older facilities in use through the 1980s were often crude and allowed AFFF to enter groundwater. The U.S. military adopted a variety of foam suppressants as AFFF was withdrawn from service. Source: U.S. Air Force.

PFOS and PFOA were used in a fire suppressant called Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF) from the 1960s into the current decade. Mixed with water, AFFF was widely used, especially at military aviation facilities, due to its ability to quickly smother jet fuel fires. It was loaded aboard firefighting trucks for rapid response to aircraft accidents, and was used within spray dispersal systems in aircraft hangars. Even as the military converted to alternative foam types, it also continued to rely upon existing stockpiles of AFFF. For over 50 years, AFFF usage and spills have resulted in the release of PFOS and PFOA into the environment at a number of identified locations. 

In addition to environmental releases during actual aircraft fire emergencies, AFFF was historically released during fire training exercises, accidental discharges from the hangar dispersal systems, and even routine cleaning and maintenance of firefighting apparatus. Accidental spills in the United States have occurred as recently as 2015. While more modern hangars and training facilities have been designed to collect wastes from AFFF and other chemicals from training exercises and spills, such designs have not always been in place. 

Due to their lack of biodegradability, released PFAS have accumulated in soil and groundwater over time.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “[m]ost people in the United States have one or more specific PFAS in their blood, especially PFOS and PFOA.” While research is still ongoing, studies indicate that at certain levels these chemicals may cause a variety of adverse health effects, including cancer, liver damage, heightened cholesterol, and damage to fetuses. Initial concerns regarding PFAS in the vicinity of manufacturing facilities have expanded as the chemicals have been detected in groundwater in locations across the United States. In 2016 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a lifetime drinking water health advisory for the chemicals. Earlier this year, however, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR) released a draft report calling for a far more significant limit for safe PFOS and PFOA exposure

Civil litigation followed soon after the EPA drinking water health advisory, with a lawsuit by Minnesota against 3M, the largest manufacturer of PFOS and PFOA, resulting in a settlement this past February. Other civil litigation is in process, pending, or under consideration. As litigation has progressed, so has our clients’ need for information on the historical use of these chemicals. Because of the wide assortment of end users and the impermanent nature of many records relating to AFFF usage and discharge, this typically will require extensive research at the federal, state, and local levels. 

The majority of AFFF-related contamination cases thus far are at military installations. All branches of the U.S. military, including their reserve components, have used AFFF, which entered usage with the U.S. Navy during the 1960s and was adopted service-wide during the early 1970s. Usage was not restricted to the United States, and in addition to usage at overseas U.S. bases, AFFF was also relied upon by NATO partners, making PFOS and PFOA contamination a globe-spanning phenomenon. Therefore, when investigating U.S. military releases, a review of federal records is essential. 

Firefighting foam is designed to separate the fire from its oxygen supply. While the military periodically tests hangar “deluge” foam suppression systems, accidental releases from these systems have also occurred, resulting in potential AFFF release into the environment. Source: New York Air National Guard.

Firefighting foam is designed to separate the fire from its oxygen supply. While the military periodically tests hangar “deluge” foam suppression systems, accidental releases from these systems have also occurred, resulting in potential AFFF release into the environment. Source: New York Air National Guard.

Yet federal records will usually tell only part of the story. State and local research (the latter is the focus of a previous TRG blog post) are vital, especially in instances where state, county, or municipal agencies oversaw firefighting operations or training. Air National Guard units operated their own AFFF-capable equipment and facilities, often at military bases owned by the federal government. AFFF-equipped crash crews at civil airports may have been overseen by state, county, municipal, or even intergovernmental agencies. Lastly, local fire departments near military facilities often assisted their military counterparts in times of need, particularly in the event of an off-base aircraft crash, and in some instances may have been the first AFFF-equipped responders on the scene. 

Taylor Research Group has unrivalled experience using public records to document the historical usage and disposal of AFFF.  Contact us to learn more about how our research methodology and expertise can help you uncover essential documentation for your particular PFAS legal case or historical inquiry.