Understanding the Science Behind Toxicity in AFFF

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Science Behind Toxicity in AFFF

Do you know what’s hiding behind those firefighting foam sprays that you often see in real-life emergencies? If you’ve ever wondered about it, you’re not alone.

The innocuous-looking Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) plays a crucial role in tackling fires. However, what you might not realize is that it comes with a hidden side, one that you should be aware of. This type of fire extinguisher has faced acute criticism for its health and environmental effects.

In this blog post, we’ll discuss the scientific aspects of the toxicity of AFFF.

The Chemical Composition of AFFF

AFFF is a firefighting tool that contains a mixture of water, fluorochemical surfactants, and hydrocarbon-based foam stabilizers. The primary purpose of firefighting foam is to suppress and extinguish flammable liquid fires. It works by forming a thin film on the surface of the burning liquid, cutting off the oxygen supply and suppressing the fire.

The fluorochemical surfactants in firefighting foam reduce the surface tension of water, allowing it to spread more evenly across the burning liquid. This film formation creates a barrier that prevents the release of flammable vapors and reduces the fire’s intensity.

The hydrocarbon-based foam stabilizers help maintain the foam’s stability and improve its ability to adhere to vertical and horizontal surfaces. In this way, it efficiently covers the fuel source and helps control the fire.

Understanding the chemical composition of AFFF is important to understanding its potential toxicity. The unique blend of chemicals in firefighting foam plays a significant role in its firefighting capabilities. However, this very composition can raise concerns about its impact on health and the environment.

How AFFF Compounds Affect Human Health

AFFF compounds can have a significant impact on human health due to their chemical composition. When individuals come into contact with AFFF, they may be exposed to PFAS chemicals. These chemicals are associated with various health concerns, including cancer, reproductive issues, and immune system problems.

A study has found that firefighters are at risk of developing different types of cancer due to exposure to PFAS chemicals. The firefighting community, in particular, is at risk due to their frequent exposure to AFFF during training and real emergencies. This heightened risk has led to growing concerns about the health implications for firefighters and first responders.

According to TorHoerman Law, in response to these concerns, affected individuals are increasingly turning to the legal system for recourse. Many are filing AFFF lawsuits with the help of lawyers. They are being phased out from the market due to their negative consequences. Numerous individuals who have been exposed to harmful effects of firefighting foam are currently grappling with health issues stemming from PFAS exposure.

According to the AFFF lawsuit update, the cases have been combined into multidistrict litigation. This MDL encompasses almost 6,000 separate lawsuits concerning injuries resulting from AFFF exposure.

How PFAS Impacts the Environment

The impact of PFAS on the environment is substantial, primarily due to its release into natural ecosystems. These chemicals can stay in the environment for extended periods, potentially causing harm to various organisms. When firefighting foam is used in fire-fighting scenarios, PFAS are released into the surroundings, where they can contaminate soil and water sources.

In a recent study, it was found that nearly 77.5% of PFOA emissions and 90% of PFOS emissions are discharged into surface water. This water often serves as the primary untreated water source before purification for consumption, with the rest entering the soil. The diverse physical and chemical characteristics of different PFAS isomers impact their distribution in untreated water sources.

These characteristics also affect how effectively treatment methods work. This means that even after water treatment processes, traces of PFAS may still persist, potentially posing risks to human and environmental health.

Extensive AFFF use in training and firefighting has created PFAS hotspots in some areas. These contaminated sites may pose long-term risks to both wildlife and nearby communities. Efforts to remediate these areas are underway. However, the widespread use of firefighting foam over the years has left a legacy of environmental challenges that will require dedicated efforts to address.

Regulatory Measures and Guidelines for AFFF Use and Disposal

In 2021, the number of U.S. states that either banned or put strict limits on AFFF went up from just a few to at least 15. Also, about five other states are considering similar laws.  The U.S. armed forces have declared their intention to discontinue its usage by October 2024. This decision underscores the acknowledgment of the adverse effects of AFFF and a commitment to finding safer alternatives.

Simultaneously, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is aligning its policies with these efforts. The FAA plans to adopt a similar approach, extending the discontinuation of AFFF to numerous airports throughout the United States. This concerted effort among government agencies signifies a significant step towards minimizing the environmental and health impacts of firefighting foam.

Moreover, proper disposal of AFFF is a key aspect of regulatory measures. Given the potential environmental risks posed by PFAS in AFFF, it is imperative to employ safe and controlled disposal methods. Organizations should follow guidelines to handle, contain, and dispose of AFFF properly to avoid more soil and water contamination.

Exploring Safer Fire Fighting Solutions

In the quest for safer firefighting solutions, you need to acknowledge the need for alternatives that prioritize both effectiveness and environmental safety.

In recent years, several viable alternatives have emerged. These alternatives offer promising avenues for firefighters and first responders to combat fires while minimizing potential harm to health and the environment.

1. High-Expansion Foam

High-expansion foam is a promising alternative that relies on a unique combination of water, foam concentrate, and compressed air. When deployed, it expands rapidly to create a dense blanket that suffocates the fire. This method is particularly effective in enclosed spaces, such as warehouses or industrial facilities, where oxygen control is crucial for suppression.

2. Dry Powder Fire Suppressants

This type of fire extinguisher utilizes fine particles to smother flames. These particles disrupt the chemical reaction of the fire, rendering it inert. Advancements in dry powder technology have expanded its use beyond Class D fires involving combustible metals to a wider range of fire types. This provides a versatile and eco-friendly option.

3. Water Mist Systems

These systems utilize high-pressure pumps to break water into fine droplets, creating a mist that effectively suppresses fires. This method offers the advantage of reducing water usage while maintaining a high level of fire-fighting efficiency.

Final Thoughts

The composition of AFFF has potential risks to both human health and the environment. It contains PFAS which have raised significant concerns for human health and the environment.

As awareness grows, safer solutions like high-expansion foam and water mist systems offer promising avenues for firefighters and first responders. These alternatives prioritize both effectiveness and environmental safety.