Six former employees of the Florida State Fire College have joined a class-action lawsuit against flame retardant manufacturers, alleging their exposure to toxic chemicals caused serious medical conditions including thyroid disease, breast cancer and kidney cancer.

The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida on Dec. 20, alleges the manufacturers knowingly made and sold flame retardants that release harmful — and long-lasting — chemicals into the air, soil and groundwater.

The suit, first reported by the Ocala Star-Banner, was filed as state health officials have been conducting water testing for the same contaminants in the surrounding area. At least three wells outside the fire college tested positive for elevated levels of those chemicals two months ago, and the local health department has been soliciting requests from local residents who also wish to have their own water tested.

A map of the Florida State Fire College and surrounding area shows the many private wells nearby. At least three wells outside the fire college tested positive for elevated levels of those chemicals two months ago, and the local health department has been soliciting requests from local residents who also wish to have their own water tested. (Florida Department of Health)
A map of the Florida State Fire College and surrounding area shows the many private wells nearby. At least three wells outside the fire college tested positive for elevated levels of those chemicals two months ago, and the local health department has been soliciting requests from local residents who also wish to have their own water tested. (Florida Department of Health)

Early tests of the — chemicals perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) — have suggested that they can be carcinogens. Other effects in humans include high cholesterol, thyroid disorders, adverse reproductive and developmental effects and some types of cancer. PFOS and PFOA are easily absorbed after consumption and accumulate primarily in the bloodstream, kidney and liver.

The chemicals are primarily used in flame retardants.

According to the complaint filed by Miami personal injury attorney Jan Paul Portal, the plaintiffs call for a jury trial, award for damages totaling more than $5 million and a medical monitoring program — paid for by the manufacturers — for those who came in contact with the chemical but haven't been diagnosed with illnesses yet.

The plaintiffs are asking to certify the suit as a class action for those who claim injury by the chemicals and for those who were just exposed to it.

Portal could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

In 2002, the primary U.S. manufacturer of PFOS voluntarily phased it out of production because it was aware of the looming chemical exposure and health effects on the public. In 2006, eight major companies in the PFAS industry voluntarily agreed to phase out production for the same reason. They joined the Environmental Protection Agency's PFOA Stewardship Program, making voluntary commitments to reduce product content and facility emissions of PFOA and related chemicals by 95 percent no later than 2010. But the chemicals are made up of compounds that don't biodegrade, which allows them to remain in air, soil and groundwater for decades.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency refers to the contaminants as those of "emerging concern."

The case names 10 defendants, including the 3M Company, Tyco Fire Products and Chemguard, who all distributed the chemicals for use at airports, fire departments and industrial facilities across the country.

"They understood far more about the properties of and the biodegradability of their additives than any other customer," the lawsuit says. "They chose not to use their knowledge to design safer products."

Water contamination near the State Fire College was made known to officials in early October, after results came back from testing done by the state's Department of Environmental Protection. Of the roughly 80 to 90 wells in a mile radius around the college, 17 wells were tested. According to emails obtained by the Herald/Times, levels of PFOS and PFOA in the water at the college were found to be between 250,000 and 270,000 parts per trillion, more than 3,000 times higher than the advisable 70 parts per trillion for drinking water.

In November, the Department of Health tested some surrounding wells and found four, including the fire college, that showed elevated PFOS and PFOA levels. Those wells belonged to a private home, a mining business and a local fire station, which have received filters for their wells and a regular supply of bottled water for drinking, cooking, bathing and other household activities.

To date, 40 samples have been collected from homes and business in Marion County, but results are still pending.

While no specific number of class members is listed, the suit suggests the class includes hundreds of firefighters, instructors and administrative employees exposed to the chemicals through contaminated groundwater around the college.

One of the plaintiffs, a former firefighter instructor at the college, drank from the college's well water, which was contaminated by the chemicals. David Battisti, who now lives in Broward County, alleges his thyroid disease is a direct result of exposure.

The five other plaintiffs, all Ocala residents, suffer from thyroid disease and various forms of cancer, which they allege is a result of the contaminated water. They could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

All six plaintiffs claim they came in contact with the chemicals through water from the college's pipes, faucets, showerheads, appliances, sinks and drinking water fountains. Two spouses are also named as plaintiffs in the suit.

In August, the state's Department of Environmental Protection conducted tests at the college and found high levels of the chemicals in two of the three wells that provide the college's water supply.

The Governor's Office declined to comment on the matter, as the Fire College is not a party in the suit.

Times/Herald staff writer Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.