From Hero to Harmed? The Navy, AFFF, and the Legal Implications

In an era where heroes risk their lives to protect and serve, a sinister threat lurks beneath the surface. The U.S. Navy, a symbol of strength and resilience, now faces an insidious enemy—one that strikes not with weapons but with toxic chemicals. 

For decades, the Navy relied on AFFF, a firefighting foam containing PFAS, unaware of its potential to inflict devastating harm. As the truth emerges, countless veterans and their families find themselves grappling with the consequences of exposure to these “forever chemicals.” 

From contaminated bases to courtrooms, the fight for justice and accountability rages on. This blog post delves into the Navy’s painful reckoning with AFFF and the battle to protect the health of those who served.

History of AFFF Use in the Navy

The Navy’s implementation of aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, as a firefighting tool in the 1960s, revolutionized its ability to combat fuel fires. The foam’s unparalleled success led to its widespread use in training and operations across the Navy’s facilities. 

For decades, AFFF remained the go-to solution, with the Navy heavily relying on its firefighting prowess. However, the long-term use of AFFF occurred without a comprehensive understanding of its potential health risks. 

As the Navy continued to employ AFFF, its personnel were unknowingly exposed to toxic PFAS chemicals, which would later be linked to severe health consequences. 

As per the Environmental Working Group, there are over 700 military sites in the United States and its territories that have been identified as having known or suspected PFAS contamination. 

The lack of knowledge about these risks left the Navy ill-prepared to address the impending health crisis as the truth about PFAS came to light.

Routes of AFFF Exposure for Navy Personnel

Beyond the controlled environment of firefighting drills, Navy personnel faced a multitude of potential AFFF exposure routes throughout their service.

Routine training exercises designed to replicate real-world fire emergencies often incorporated AFFF as the extinguishing agent. These exercises could involve simulated aircraft fires, onboard blazes, or fuel spills, all scenarios where AFFF would be the standard firefighting tool.

However, the danger extended beyond training evolutions. AFFF was often stockpiled on naval vessels and shore installations in designated storage areas. Leaks, spills, or routine maintenance procedures near these storage sites could create a pervasive environmental presence of PFAS-laden AFFF. 

Additionally, faulty ventilation systems or proximity to storage areas could expose personnel to airborne PFAS particles, raising concerns about inhalation as a potential exposure route. The measures designed to safeguard Navy vessels from fire may have unwittingly jeopardized the health of the sailors entrusted to protect them.

The Health Effects of PFAS Exposure

The health effects of PFAS exposure were nothing short of devastating. The impact was far-reaching, affecting not only those who had served but also the communities surrounding the contaminated sites.

As more research came to light, the true extent of the PFAS health crisis became increasingly apparent. Studies conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revealed that exposure to these toxic chemicals could lead to a wide range of adverse health outcomes. These include immune system dysfunction, developmental delays in children, and even reproductive issues. 

Moreover, according to TruLaw, pregnant women exposed to these foams may experience a rise in blood pressure or develop pre-eclampsia.

The insidious nature of PFAS meant that the effects could manifest years, or even decades, after initial exposure. This has left many veterans and their loved ones grappling with unexplained illnesses. Also, a sense of betrayal from the very institution they had served with honor can be shattering. 

The Legal Landscape

The mounting evidence of the toll PFAS had taken on the health of Navy personnel and their families only added to the urgency of addressing this complex and far-reaching problem.

Recent years have seen a wave of legal action targeting companies that manufacture firefighting foam. The crux of an AFFF lawsuit by Navy personnel is that the manufacturers were negligent for decades. The lawsuits argue that they deliberately concealed the health risks associated with the PFAS chemicals present in the foam.

Forbes reported that the AFFF foam class action lawsuit had 111 new cases added by mid-October, 2023, taking the total number of cases to over 6,000.

In 2023, conglomerate 3M reached a settlement agreement of at least $10.3 billion to resolve claims related to PFAS contamination. This settlement came after similar claims against DuPont, Chemours, and Corteva were settled for approximately $1.2 billion.

In addition, Tyco Fire Products recently reached a $750 million settlement in April of this year to address claims associated with its firefighting foam.

Key Actions Being taken by the Government

In April 2024, the EPA classified two common chemicals (PFOA and PFOS) found in firefighting foam as hazardous waste under the Superfund. This means polluters will be held responsible for cleaning up these chemicals in the environment.

Moreover, in a bid to safeguard drinking water, the EPA set legal limits on certain harmful chemicals found in water on April 10, 2024. These limits, known as Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs), specifically target six types of PFAS toxins and restrict them to no more than 4 parts per trillion in drinking water.

Last year, the Pentagon made a significant announcement to discontinue the purchase of firefighting foams that contain PFAS chemicals. Furthermore, the Pentagon plans to completely cease their use by the end of 2024.

A Personal Story

Air Force veteran Joe McGrath faces a chilling reality. After serving honorably for 34 years at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove, he now contends with potential health problems linked to PFAS toxins.

The base closed in 2011 and was later discovered to have PFAS contamination in its groundwater. It was believed to be a consequence of the firefighting foam used during training exercises. 

McGrath, currently battling eczema, wonders if his condition is a direct result of decades of unknowingly consuming PFAS-laced water. Adding weight to his concern, McGrath’s participation in a CDC study revealed exponentially high blood PFAS levels. 

His count was at a staggering 384 nanograms per milliliter, exceeding the National Institute of Health’s cautionary threshold of 20 nanograms per milliliter.

McGrath’s story embodies the human cost of AFFF use. He, like countless veterans, now grapples with the agonizing uncertainty of potential health problems stemming from what they believed to be safe drinking water.


1. What is AFFF and how was it used by the Navy?

AFFF, or Aqueous Film-Forming Foam, was a firefighting agent widely used by the Navy for decades, since the 1960s. Its effectiveness in combating fuel fires led to its widespread adoption in training exercises and on naval vessels. 

However, the long-term use of AFFF happened without a full understanding of the potential health risks associated with the PFAS chemicals it contained.

2. How were Navy personnel exposed to PFAS toxins from AFFF?

Exposure to PFAS from AFFF occurred through various routes during a sailor’s service. Training exercises involving simulated fires frequently used AFFF, potentially leading to skin contact and inhalation of the firefighting foam. 

Beyond training, AFFF stockpiled on vessels and bases could leak or release PFAS particles through faulty ventilation, creating a pervasive environmental presence.

3. What are the health effects of PFAS exposure and what is being done about it?

Studies link PFAS exposure to a range of health problems including immune system dysfunction, developmental issues in children, and even certain cancers. The invisible nature of PFAS contamination and the delayed onset of health effects make it a complex challenge. 

However, there is hope. Lawsuits against AFFF manufacturers are underway, and the government is taking action. The EPA recently classified certain PFAS chemicals as hazardous waste and set stricter drinking water standards. The Pentagon has also banned the purchase and use of PFAS-containing firefighting foams by the end of 2024.

To conclude, the Navy’s story serves as a stark reminder of the importance of prioritizing long-term health implications alongside immediate functionality. As the legal battles rage on and scientific research delves deeper, a glimmer of hope emerges. 

Collaborative efforts between government agencies, manufacturers, and veterans’ groups offer a path toward a safer future. The need of the hour is to prioritize transparency, accountability, and responsible innovation. Only then can we strive to prevent similar situations and safeguard the well-being of those who protect our nation.