Charlotte firefighter Seth Tinsley was only 29-years-old when the terrible headaches started in 2010. Scans later showed a fist-sized tumor in his brain. The devastating diagnosis forced Tinsely to step away from fighting fires to fight for his life.
Over the next six years, Tinsley endured multiple surgeries and cancer treatments. When he passed away in 2016, he was one of three Charlotte firefighters who died from cancer that year. According to Tom Brewer, president of Charlotte Firefighter Local 660, 43 active duty Charlotte firefighters were diagnosed with cancer the following year. That number is particularly alarming, since firefighters must retire at 50. A growing number of firefighters across the world believe that Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) is the culprit.
“Our cancer rates rise every year,” said Brewer. “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.”
Occupational cancer is the number one killer of firefighters, who have relatively high levels of the chemicals in their blood, elevated rates of cancer diagnoses and a cancer death rate 14 percent higher than the general population, according to a study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
AFFF has been manufactured and sold to fire departments for more than 60 years as a special firefighting tool. It is also used by the military, airports and other first responders. While AFF is extremely effective at suppressing flames, it also contains high levels of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS), the cancer-causing forever chemicals that seem to be everywhere in North Carolina.
Firefighters would wade through and become covered in the soap-like foam. During the annual training burns, they handled large amounts of AFFF without masks or protective gloves. In addition, firefighter gear is treated with PFAS to make it more water-resistant. Documents from the 1980s and 1990s suggest manufacturers knew foams with PFAS were harmful, but the dangers weren’t disclosed until the early 2000s.
Attorney General Josh Stein has been investigating the manufacturers responsible for PFAS contamination in the state for years. At a November 4th Charlotte press conference flanked by firefighters and DHHS staff, Stein announced he was suing 14 AFFF manufacturers for their failure to tell those using the foam how to properly handle it. The defendants include Chemours, DuPont and 3M.
“These companies made and sold firefighting foam with dangerous forever chemicals to our firefighters, military servicemembers and first responders, long after they knew or should have known how harmful this foam was,” said Stein.
AFFF is still in use today, although increasingly less so. The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (“NDAA”) phased out the use of AFFF at all military sites by October 1, 2024. Twelve states have banned PFAS-containing class B firefighting foam and manufacturers and sellers of PFAS-containing AFFF are facing numerous bans on the product.
Firefighting foams without the chemicals are already used successfully around the world but the Federal Aviation Authority still requires most US airports to use AFFF. In 2018, Congress passed legislation requiring the FAA to allow airports to use other kinds of foam. The agency has taken several steps to effectively eliminate the need to discharge the foam except during an aircraft emergency. On October 4, it urged U.S. airports to limit its use as it evaluates possible alternatives.
“Every day, we learn more about this toxic class of chemicals,” said Brewer. “The research and data are clear – these deadly chemicals must be removed from the firefighters’ environment.”