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Gelman: Exposed to 'Forever Chemicals'

By Jon L. Gelman

Tuesday, April 2, 2024 | 0

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as "forever chemicals," are a growing concern in the workplace.

Jon L. Gelman

Jon L. Gelman

These man-made chemicals are nearly impossible to break down and can build up in the body over time. Unfortunately, some New Jersey workers are facing serious health consequences due to PFAS exposure.

Who is most at risk?

Several occupations put workers at risk of PFAS exposure, including:

  • Chemical manufacturing workers who produce or handle PFAS-containing materials.
  • Firefighters whose turnout gear and fire retardant foams often contain PFAS.
  • Airport workers who come into contact with firefighting foams used during emergencies.
  • Textile industry workers who work with water-repellent fabrics treated with PFAS.
  • Wastewater treatment plant workers who may be contaminated by PFAS in treated water.

Routes of exposure

Workers can be exposed to PFAS through inhalation, ingestion or skin contact. Inhalation is the most common route for those working directly with PFAS materials. Ingestion can occur through contaminated food or water or by accidentally swallowing contaminated dust or particles. Skin contact can happen when handling PFAS-containing materials without proper protective gear.

Health effects

Studies have linked PFAS exposure to a variety of health problems, including:

  • Certain cancers (kidney, testicular, pancreatic).
  • Immune system trouble.
  • Thyroid disease.
  • High cholesterol.
  • Ulcerative colitis.
  • Birth defects.

State law

The New Jersey Workers' Compensation Act offers benefits for workers who become ill due to PFAS exposure on the job, but successful claims require considering occupational exposure specifics:

  • Presumption of causation. New Jersey doesn't have a presumption of causation for PFAS exposure and specific illnesses. This means workers must provide medical evidence directly linking their illness to workplace PFAS exposure.
  • Date of injury. Since PFAS exposure often happens over extended periods, determining the exact date of injury can be challenging. New Jersey follows the "cumulative trauma" doctrine, which acknowledges that the illness can develop over time. Workers should document all potential exposure incidents.
  • Multiple potential causes. Some PFAS-related illnesses have other potential causes. Workers' compensation benefits may be reduced or denied if the employer can demonstrate another significant contributing factor to the illness.

Potential benefits

Despite the challenges, New Jersey workers' compensation can provide significant support for affected workers, including:

  • Medical expenses — coverage for all reasonable and necessary medical treatment related to the PFAS illness.
  • Lost wages  compensation for a portion of lost wages while the worker is unable to work due to illness.
  • Temporary disability benefits — payments for a limited period while the worker recovers from a job-related illness.
  • Permanent disability benefits — payments for workers who suffer a permanent disability from PFAS exposure. The amount is based on the degree of disability.
  • Vocational rehabilitation — services to help workers with permanent disabilities return to work in a suitable capacity.

The road to compensation

If you believe you have been sickened by PFAS exposure at work, it's important to act quickly.

  • See a doctor. Get a medical evaluation to document your illness and link it to potential PFAS exposure.
  • Report the exposure to your employer. Notify your employer in writing about your exposure and your suspected illness.
  • File a workers' compensation claim. Consult with an attorney specializing in occupational exposure claims for PFAS to navigate the complex process and gather strong evidence.

New Jersey is at the forefront of addressing PFAS concerns. Workers' compensation benefits can help those who have been harmed by these dangerous chemicals. If you suspect PFAS exposure at work, don't hesitate to seek medical attention and legal guidance from an attorney experienced in occupational exposure claims.

Claimants' attorney Jon L. Gelman is the author of "New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Law" and co-author of the national treatise "Modern Workers’ Compensation Law." He is based in Wayne, New Jersey. This blog post is republished with permission.


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