A group of Long Island homeowners recently filed a lawsuit against 3M over allegations that its firefighting foam led to contamination of the nearby groundwater supply.
The plaintiffs, which reportedly include 15 residents of Westhampton and Quiogue, N.Y., argued that the foam long used on the tarmac of Francis J. Gabreski Airport contained the chemicals PFOS and PFOA.
The airport, which serves those middle-class neighborhoods as well as the affluent communities of the Hamptons, was classified as a Superfund site by New York state officials last year.
Bloomberg reports that the filing was the 10th such lawsuit filed over the foam — known as aqueous film-forming foam — since 2015.
PFOS remains in use today as a fire retardant component of many household products, while PFOA and related chemicals are used to make non-stick coatings. Both chemicals, however, are linked to cancer and other health problems.
Officials from Suffolk County, which was also named in the suit, told the publication that the contamination was confined to a small area, but attorneys for the plaintiffs said that they expected more than 250 people to eventually join the class-action lawsuit.
3M, which voluntarily began phasing out PFOS in 2002, disputed common perceptions about the chemical and said the company instructed its customers to properly use and dispose of firefighting foam.
“AFFF is a product that was used by the U.S. military and departments of defense around the world because it saves lives — which likely explains why this product remains in use approximately a decade after 3M exited the sales of it,” William A. Brewer III, an attorney for the Minnesota conglomerate, told Bloomberg.
Hamptons Tainted Water Lawsuit Adds to Slew of 3M ComplaintsBy
Chemical firefighting foam bled into groundwater, lawsuit says
Plaintiffs multiply across country as research reveals toxins
Fifteen people in a middle-income neighborhood near an airport in Southampton, New York -- seaside playground of the rich and famous -- are suing 3M Co. and other makers of a chemical called PFOS that went into a foam used to fight fires on the tarmac. The plaintiffs say they’ve ingested PFOS as well as PFOA, which results when PFOS and other agents in the foam degrade. The airport was designated a Superfund site in September.
It’s one of 10 lawsuits filed since 2015 that concern aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, according to a Bloomberg survey. 3M, which announced 17 years ago it would voluntarily phase out PFOS before many of its competitors, said public information about the chemical has been “misleading.’’
“In this day and age, in the richest country on earth, Americans can’t go into their kitchens, turn on their taps and be assured there’s no potential health harm to it,” said Bill Walker, a Berkeley, California-based vice president at Environmental Working Group.
Consistent SignalsDuPont and its spinoff, Chemours Co., recently settled 3,500 suits over PFOA in drinking water around its plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
The lawsuits seek to build on a 2012 report that linked PFOA to six diseases, including certain types of cancer. In May 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which doesn’t regulate the chemicals, lowered the level of exposure it advised. It cited studies linking PFOS and PFOA with low birth weight, accelerated puberty, cancer and immune and thyroid disorders.
Evidence about cancer risks is mounting, with data on testicular and kidney cancer being the most consistent, Richard Clapp, an adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, told a conference Wednesday in Boston. Other conference speakers said they were frustrated that so many of the possible chemicals meant to replace them haven’t been studied enough before they were put to use.
Teflon, ScotchgardDuPont used PFOA to make Teflon coating for cooking pans. In addition to firefighting foam, PFOS was in 3M’s Scotchgard, which, since its reformulation, is still used to protect carpets and furniture from stains. Chemical cousins have also been found in fast-food wrappers.
Fifteen million Americans drink water with elevated levels of PFOS and PFOA, according to a study released last week by Northeastern University and the Environmental Working Group. Most of them live near 47 military or industrial sites, the study said. Water systems have also filed suits against 3M, DuPont and other manufacturers.
“Scientific literature is booming, consumer awareness is expanding,” said Phil Brown, referring to the general chemical class known as perfluorochemicals, which includes PFOS and PFOA. The Northeastern University professor runs the school’s Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute, which hosted Wednesday’s conference.
Saves Lives3M says a lot of information about the chemicals is “simply incorrect.”
“AFFF is a product that was used by the U.S. military and departments of defense around the world because it saves lives -– which likely explains why this product remains in use approximately a decade after 3M exited the sales of it,” William A. Brewer III, partner at Brewer, Attorneys & Counselors, and a lawyer for 3M, said in an email.
3M said a lawsuit brought over AFFF by the States of Guernsey, in the English Channel, was resolved in its favor when the suit was dismissed last year.
Most Americans have measurable perflourochemicals in their blood, according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Currently, there’s “no established blood level at which a health effect is known nor is there a level that is clearly associated with past or future health problems,” the agency says.
Jerome Liggon, a plaintiff in the Hamptons suit, recalled summer days five decades ago when he and his young pals biked to Francis J. Gabreski Airport to watch drills where firefighters set fire to a runway, then shot an arc of white foam on the tarmac to extinguish the flames in an instant.
Summer WeekendsLiggon and his fellow plaintiffs live in a less affluent section of the Hamptons. Among the communities affected, according to the lawsuit, are Westhampton and Quiogue, near Gabreski Airport, where they say the firefighting foam seeped into the groundwater. PFOS has been detected in the area at a frequency more than 200 times an advised level in groundwater, the lawsuit said.
Liggon and his wife Elizabeth built a home just blocks away from where he grew up watching the firefighting drills, which his suit says went on for decades. Over time, they suspected something wasn’t right, they said.
“I noticed the amount of cancer deaths and it just didn’t make sense to me,’’ said Liggon, 58. He said he has growths on his thyroid that he and his doctor monitor. Elizabeth Liggon, a 47-year-old marathon runner, said she has high blood pressure and kidney cysts.
Class ActionThe Liggons’ attorney, Hunter Shkolnik, said he expected more than 250 plaintiffs to eventually sign on to the Hamptons lawsuit and hopes it will become a class action. Shkolnik said he also represents clients in Colorado, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania and anticipates filing more suits in other U.S. locations.
Lawsuits over AFFF across the U.S. name 3M, Tyco Fire Products LP, Angus Fire, National Foam, Buckeye Fire Protection Co. and Chemguard. Lawyers for those companies declined to comment or didn’t return requests.
The Liggons are also suing Suffolk County, New York. The county has filters to screen the pollutants, said Tim Hopkins, general counsel for the water authority. The problem is limited to a small area, he said.
The suits allege 3M and others knew, or should have known, of the harm, citing internal reviews of personnel safety that began in the mid-1980s, and didn’t warn purchasers.
“We think it is important to note that 3M sold its AFFF products with instructions regarding their safe use and disposal,” Brewer said in his statement.
Legal ClaimsLawsuits against 3M related to PFOS date to at least 2002. Regulatory filings of the St. Paul, Minnesota-based company show PFOS has spurred legal claims over both its intended uses, like in AFFF and carpets, and the places where it’s accidentally ended up, such as biosolids from sewage-treatment plants spread on farmland. 3M recorded $38 million for estimated environmental remediation costs and $29 million for “other environmental liabilities,” according to its most recent annual filing.
The Hamptons case is Green et al v. The 3M Company et al, 17-02566, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York (Central Islip).