NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. (TND) — Military firefighters run toward dangerous situations, risking their lives in emergencies. But Spotlight on America has been reporting extensively on new concerns their job may have exposed them to a hazard the Defense Department never warned them about: firefighting foam made from a toxic set of chemicals with a known link to cancer.
Now one terminally ill veteran is speaking out for the first time, hoping his battle to get the military to acknowledge the human toll of exposure to toxic foam will help other service members who are still at risk.
Dan Casson has had a guitar in his hand since he was five years old. Decades later, you can still see the joy on his face when he picks up the instrument in his small Florida apartment. As a former professional musician, the guitar was once his ticket to the bright lights of Hollywood. Now, he tells us, it's his escape from the terminal cancer he's battling and the endless cycle of pain and medication he endures.
Casson traces his cancer back to the turn his life took when he gave up his music career and joined the military. In 1975, he signed on with the Air Force as a firefighter, working in crash rescue. He told Spotlight on America the job sent him running into burning airplanes over and over as his fellow firefighters doused the flames with a substance known as AFFF: aqueous film-forming foam, a fire suppressant used for decades by the military.
Casson said he and other service members were given a simple answer whenever anyone questioned what was in the foam.
We were all told it's just soap suds, that's all it is. They lied to us. They lied to every firefighter," Casson said.
AFFF is not just soap suds. It's now widely documented the foam contains PFAS, a toxic set of man-made chemicals that studies show have a link to cancer and other health problems. Spotlight on America has been reporting on the toxic foam since 2019, documenting contamination left behind by its use at hundreds of military bases nationwide as well as the impacts on neighboring communities.
Casson and other first responders believe the military has long been aware of the health risks posed to firefighters who used the foam but failed to warn them.
"I'm disgusted," he told us. "Many, many moons ago, they knew."
Recently, Spotlight on America sat down for an exclusive interview with Kevin Ferrara, a veteran and whistleblower. He showed us records saved from his time in service that indicate the military has been aware of the potential health impacts of AFFF since at least 2013 but continued its use. Since going public about his concerns, Ferrara says he's been contacted by dozens of sickened military firefighters like Casson, concerned that AFFF may have connections to their illness.
Firefighters are sick. They’re developing cancer and other medical illnesses. At the end of the day, we just want answers," veteran and whistleblower Kevin Ferrara said.
In December, Defense department leaders faced tough questions about PFAS on Capitol Hill in a Senate hearing. Lawmakers asked how long the military has been aware of the health impacts of AFFF, and how many first responders may have been sickened by the foam. Richard Kidd, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Environment & Energy Resilience, was unable to provide specific answers, indicating the science on PFAS is still murky. "It is still unclear what exposures and at what levels result in adverse health effects," he told lawmakers.
Spotlight on America has repeatedly asked the Department of Defense for interviews but has received consistent denials. Our team also sent specific questions related to PFAS exposure and military firefighters to the DOD but a representative said additional information beyond what was provided in the Senate hearing would not be available. To watch the full hearing, "Examining Federal Efforts to Address PFAS Contamination," click here.
Our team took concerns from military firefighters to one of the most outspoken voices in the nation when it comes to PFAS contamination: Democratic New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. She told us, "You (the DOD) mandated this and you didn't know it was a cancer-causing foam, but it is. So you have to protect these service members and these veterans."
Gillibrand is fighting for thousands of military first responders like Dan Casson, as well as those who may not yet have made the potential connection between their health problems and their exposure to the toxic foam.
"It makes perfect sense with the level of exposure our service members have had over so many decades that there are many service members and veterans who are perhaps suffering from cancers and other diseases caused by that exposure to PFAS," said Gillibrand.
Hopefully they begin to put two and two together and say this exposure may well be the source of this illness I have today and seek appropriate care and compensation for their healthcare needs," Senator Kirsten Gillibrand told Spotlight on America.
Last year, the military was forced by Congress to start blood testing on active-duty firefighters to measure PFAS exposure levels. Some government studies have already documented higher levels in firefighters who used AFFF. But this past summer, the DOD's own inspector general scolded the military for not adequately tracking and analyzing its own testing to help get a sense of the impacts.
As Casson knows, getting care and compensation can be a battle. He showed us stacks of records he compiled as he and his doctors repeatedly fought to prove a link between his exposure to the PFAS in firefighting foam and cancer. In 2019, a breakthrough came in the mail. It was a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs that said Casson's cancers were "incurred in service" and awarded him 100% disability.
Casson told us he's proud of that letter and hopes it could help clear a pathway for others who believe there's a connection between their health problems and AFFF. The VA points out its decision "is not precedential and does not establish VA policies or interpretations of general applicability", but we're told other military firefighters are still using Casson's case as an example in their own battles with the VA.
Casson sees the letter as his legacy. "I was really proud when that came in the mail. This is wonderful," he explained. "There’s a lot of men and women I know that they’re gonna live. I’m gonna die. But they're gonna live for years to come. And I'm proud of that."
Watch our special extended investigation of PFAS in firefighting foam in our national news magazine program, Spotlight on America Presents, below: