Attorney General Maura Healey is joining the nationwide tsunami of lawsuits against companies that manufacture ubiquitous forever chemicals contained in firefighting foam in hopes of getting the chemical companies to "pay back every last dollar our state has spent on their products to clean up the contamination."
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are man-made chemicals that do not break down entirely in the environment, and exposure to their long-lasting presence has been linked to serious and negative health impacts like thyroid disease and kidney cancer. PFAS chemicals are all around us; they are used in non-stick cookware, food packaging, children's products, carpets, leather goods, ski wax, firefighting foams and more, and they have leached into drinking water supplies and the soil.
Serious levels of PFAS contamination have been found in more than 126 public drinking water systems in 86 Massachusetts communities including Chicopee, Weymouth, Abington, Rockland, Cape Cod towns and Stow. Healey blamed the manufacturers for the contamination and her suit points to "the manufacturers' illegal actions" of "deceptively" advertising products containing PFAS as safe despite knowing the chemicals were highly toxic and dangerous to the environment.
"Their actions violate state and federal laws that are intended to protect our residents and place costly burdens on our communities that are now forced to clean up this mess. Today's lawsuit joins hundreds of lawsuits around the country from state agencies, municipalities and public and private water districts against the makers of PFAS. These are manufacturers who attempted to hide just how dangerous this foam was, who prevented their workers from discussing the dangers of their products despite the fact that PFAS was toxic. These makers continued to make and sell their products without disclosing the harms, they downplayed the presence of PFAS and the list goes on," Healey said at a press conference with municipal and legislative officials Wednesday morning. "It's not only dangerous, it is illegal and that is why I am bringing suit."
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, will be combined with hundreds of similar suits from around the country against manufacturers like 3M, Dupont and Tyco. The suit names 13 manufacturers and two companies alleged to have shielded assets that could have been used for PFAS remediation.
Healey's office said the lawsuit is seeking to recover "costs to clean up and remove, restore, treat, and monitor PFAS contamination and an order requiring the manufacturers to reimburse the state for the damages its products caused." It also "demands that the manufacturers remediate and restore the state's natural resources and pay investigation fees and costs."
The attorney general did not put a dollar figure on that amount when asked Wednesday, but the Baker administration said it has spent at least $110 million to address PFAS contamination since 2015.
Across the country, attorneys general, district attorneys and municipal lawyers have increasingly gone after PFAS manufacturers in court. At least 1,235 PFAS lawsuits were filed in federal court last year, Bloomberg Law reported this week. A number of other states including Florida, Vermont, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Ohio have already taken the step of filing suit against PFAS manufacturers.
"If PFAS went into a company's finished product, odds are it's being sued," Bloomberg Law reporter Andrew Wallender wrote in a piece this week.
PFAS contamination has become an increasingly urgent issue on Beacon Hill as the ubiquity of the chemicals and their negative health consequences have become better known. The state's PFAS Interagency Task Force last month released its report with 30 recommendations that fell under eight general themes: funding PFAS detection and remediation, supporting environmental justice communities, phasing out PFAS from consumer goods, expanding the regulation of PFAS, encouraging private well PFAS testing and remediation, supporting firefighters and fire departments, addressing accountability for PFAS contamination, and enhancing public awareness of PFAS.
A whole section of the task force report revolves around fire departments and firefighters, who are exposed to PFAS on every shift via their turnout gear and who often come in contact with PFAS in firefighting foams.
"This is on the top of mind for all fire chiefs, fire officers and firefighters for a number of reasons. Since the PFAS issue has burst onto the scene, we've learned a lot and I think there's still a lot to be learned, but I think that fire departments are very concerned about this matter," Fire Marshal Peter Ostroskey, who served on the task force, said.
The report said that only firefighting gear with PFAS is able to meet current standards, which likely contributes to the higher rates of cancer diagnosis and cancer-related deaths that firefighters experience compared to the general population.
The task force recommends prohibiting the use of aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) for firefighter training, funding a second round of an AFFF take-back and disposal program, requiring fire departments to notify state environmental officials whenever AFFF is used, supporting efforts to develop turnout gear that is completely free from PFAS, and requiring turnout gear manufacturers to provide written notice of the inclusion of PFAS in the gear at the time of purchase.