Firefighters use aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, to quickly extinguish fuel fires on ships and airplanes. While PFAS may do an excellent job with extinguishing fires, it is not environmentally friendly and harmful to humans, according to research. The reason for this is because the fluorine chemicals that are present in the foam can cause debilitating health issues.
AFFF Environment & Health Concerns
The PFAS in AFFF firefighting foam puts the environment in grave danger and can pose hazardous risks. These chemicals contaminate our surface water and groundwater quality and they are incredibly mobile. The substances also bioaccumulate in organisms, meaning they never go away. Because the federal government considers facilities such as military and commercial aviation installations a priority, the foams are widely used there. However, any AFFF that is in use or is being stored can still affect a person’s health to a lesser extent. Fire and emergency services must be notified of the possible health effects their staff may experience if they are exposed to the fluorinates long-term and any contamination that could occur.
Increased PFAS exposure can affect humans in the following ways:
- Cholesterol levels
- Hormone regulation and production
- Thyroid hormone distribution
- A person’s immune system
A Brief History of Firefighting Foam
In 1980, one of the primary producers of fluorosurfactant-based foams was 3M. The foams put out fires at oil refineries, chemical plants, and storage-tank facilities, and suppressed hydrocarbon fires for aircraft crash landings.
From the 1970s through the 1990s, various fluorosurfactant fire suppressants, including 3M’s Light Water firefighting foam, were among the highest-selling products on the market.
In the year 2000, 3M disclosed that they were using PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid) surfactants in their Light Water foam. They also admitted that the surfactants were present at dangerously high levels in the environment, as well as in humans and animals, which raised substantial health concerns. Fluorosurfactants found in perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a fluorochemical containing eight carbons, were also linked to various health concerns among humans.
A majority of U.S. military scientists and firefighting experts agree that fluorosurfactant-based foams help preserve life and property because they quickly and efficiently fight fires better than foams that contain protein-based hydrocarbon surfactants and ground animal hooves.
A study conducted in 2016 at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health used data from the EPA from drinking water found inside 664 military training sites and 553 civilian airports. Over 401 active and closed military sites either suspected or knew that their water was contaminated with PFOA or PFOS compounds, according to a 2017 report Congress received from the Department of Defense.
Firefighting Foam Protocols
Washington state passed legislation in 2019 that banned the use of PFAS-based firefighting foams. As of 2020, firetrucks are no longer allowed to use the foam on fuel spills or car fires, but it can still be used in airports, military bases, petroleum refineries, and chemical plants.
In October 2018, President Trump signed the Federal Aviation Administration’s Reauthorization Act into law. By 2021, the FAA will be required to use fluorine-free foam. Currently, U.S. airports continue to use military-grade PFAS-based foams. Public interest groups such as the Environmental Working Group and the International Persistent Organic Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) want PFAS chemicals eliminated from firefighting foams.
For their part, fluorochemical suppliers, including Chemours, Dynax, and AGC Chemicals, along with foam makers such as Perimeter Solutions and Solberg, are looking for reasonable solutions. Most of these companies, with a few exceptions, are using C6 fluorosurfactants, which are much safer than PFOS and PFOA surfactants, and are less likely to accumulate in the environment.
To limit environmental exposure, foam makers have advised their users to stop using fluorosurfactant-based foams in all training exercises. Others believe that foams without fluorine work as well as foams that contain fluorosurfactants. While some critics feel that fluorine-free foams are not as efficient at fighting fires, mounting pressure has been put on manufacturers to remove or restrict fluorosurfactant chemicals from firefighting foams.
Lawsuits Among High-Risk Groups
Men and women who serve as volunteer, airport, civilian, or military firefighters in the United States are at an increased risk of exposure to AFFF. People who drank water contaminated with six-carbon replacement compounds such as PFOA or PFOS-based fluorosurfactants, and became ill, are filing lawsuits against the firefighting foam makers. Military personnel and families living on military bases are especially at risk as 87 sites were reported to have extreme contamination (more than 100 times the safe limit). The Environmental Working Group provides a comprehensive interactive map that shows military sites with either suspected or confirmed cases of PFAS discharges. States and municipalities are also filing lawsuits to recover expenses that were used to install water filtration systems.
Exposure to PFAS or PFOA in the Workplace
People who work in areas where firefighting foam is used, manufactured, or stored, such as airport terminals, chemical plants, oil refineries, and bulk fuel storage farms, may not even realize they are at risk for developing health problems.
People who inhale spray mist or dust that contains PFAS are exposed to these chemicals frequently. Skin exposure is negligible, as liquid PFAS can be absorbed through the skin slowly. People who work in environments where PFAS, in its simplest form, is either used or manufactured, may have elevated levels of PFOS or PFOA in their blood.
How PFAS Exposure in AFFF Foam Can Be Reduced
Employees should keep their PFAS exposure to a minimum in the workplace. According to the exposure control pyramid, if employees cannot eliminate their exposure to these chemicals entirely, their risks should be assessed and managed. Safe work protocols and recommendations made inside Safety Data Sheets (SDS) should be considered. Other options, such as a low level of control provided by personal protective equipment (PPE), should also be considered.
Victims may be eligible to file lawsuits against the manufacturers of AFFF, including any entities who didn’t correctly manage these chemicals.
Lawsuits have been filed against the following manufacturers:
- 3M Company
- Tyco Fire Products LP
- Chemguard, Inc.
- Buckeye Fire Equipment Company
- Kidde-Fenwal, Inc.
- National Foam, Inc.
- E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company
- The Chemours Company
Help Victims Diagnosed With Firefighting Foam Cancer
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