A stone’s throw from the white sand beaches and posh mansions of one of America’s wealthiest ZIP codes sits a community that homeowners say has been poisoned by polluted drinking water.
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.”
It was recently revealed that the same class of chemicals poisoned private wells and tap water in Airway Heights, following decades of seepage from a fire training site on the eastern edge of Fairchild Air Force Base. For more than three weeks, residents there were advised not to drink or cook with water from city pipes and instead rely on daily shipments of bottled water.
“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.
DuPont 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.
DuPont 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.
3M said 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 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 said.
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.
Liggon 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 Jerome Liggon, 58. He said he has growths on his thyroid that he and his doctor monitor. Elizabeth Liggon, 47, a marathoner, said she has high blood pressure and kidney cysts.
The 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.
Lawsuits 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.
In addition to the lawsuit over its West Virginia facility, DuPont and Chemours face a suit over its factory on the Delaware River, where residents of Carneys Point Township, New Jersey, seek $1 billion to clean up a mess they say dwarfs the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Dozens of suits were also filed last year against Cie de Saint-Gobain, a 350-year-old, Paris-based manufacturer that used the chemicals to make plastics at a plant in Hoosick Falls, New York.