Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) has long been an essential tool in firefighting, effectively suppressing flames and saving lives. However, as the environmental and health concerns surrounding AFFF come to light, firefighters face new challenges in their line of duty.
This article explores the impact of AFFF on firefighters and the obstacles they encounter due to its use. From health implications to legal battles, we delve into the complexities firefighters face while safeguarding communities.
Understanding AFFF and its Applications
AFFF is a specially formulated mixture of fluorinated surfactants, hydrocarbon surfactants, water, and other additives. This combination gives AFFF unique characteristics, such as low surface tension, quick spreading ability, and excellent fire-smothering capabilities.
When released onto a fire, AFFF rapidly expands into a foam blanket. The blanket covers the burning fuel, suffocating the flames and cutting off the oxygen supply. Since its inception in the 1960s, AFFF has been widely used in various industrial and military settings due to its exceptional fire-suppressing qualities.
Its effectiveness in extinguishing flammable liquid fires made it a preferred choice for firefighters. It is very effective compared to other methods because of its short extinguishing time. According to a study published in the ScienceDirect Journal, AFFF foam has the shortest extinguishing time of 42 seconds.
Firefighters’ Exposure to AFFF
Firefighters are at the frontline of firefighting emergencies, and as a result, they encounter AFFF in various scenarios. During fire suppression operations involving flammable liquid fires, AFFF is extensively used due to its effectiveness.
However, firefighters are exposed to AFFF and its associated chemical components during fire training exercises, equipment maintenance, and emergency responses, including the collection and exchange of firefighter challenge coins. The potential risks of repeated exposure to AFFF and PFAS in its formulations have raised significant concerns among firefighters and health experts alike.
PFAS, known for their persistence in the environment and bioaccumulative properties, may pose health risks to firefighters. This is because they are made of numerous chemicals. Data from a study published in the MDPI journal concludes that poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances have around 5000 chemical species.
Due to high exposure risks, efforts to monitor and mitigate exposure levels are crucial to protecting the well-being of these dedicated professionals. As awareness grows, there is a pressing need to explore alternative firefighting agents prioritizing firefighter safety while effectively combating flammable liquid fires.
Repeated exposure to AFFF during training exercises and emergency responses can lead to the bioaccumulation of PFAS in firefighters’ bodies. These persistent chemicals can potentially disrupt hormone function, weaken the immune system, and contribute to the development of certain cancers. Firefighters face additional risks as AFFF-contaminated gear and equipment may expose them to PFAS even when not actively combating fires.
This exposure has been linked to various health conditions. According to TruLaw, AFFF exposure can cause multiple types of cancers, including bladder, breast, colon, kidney, and many others. It is also linked with increased cholesterol levels, changes in liver enzymes, and a slight decrease in infant birth weights. Hence, many firefighters, military personnel, and others who were exposed to AFFF and developed any such condition have started filing lawsuits against manufacturers.
Legal and Regulatory Challenges
Manufacturers and distributors of AFFF face mounting lawsuits and claims from individuals who have developed health problems due to its long exposure. People are alleging the manufacturer companies failed to warn them of the potential issues of their products.
The number of AFFF lawsuits is increasing widely across all the states. To ease the AFFF lawsuit proceedings, all the cases are consolidated into multidistrict litigation (MDL) by the South Carolina District Court.
Many studies have established links between PFAS and health problems, giving the plaintiffs an upper hand in their fight. While there are no settlements made yet, there is a good chance that the decision can favor the plaintiffs.
A simple indication of this is the new state law by New Hampshire that came into effect in September 2019. The law prohibited firefighting foams containing PFAS for use in testing or training from January 1, 2020, onwards.
Besides posing a threat to firefighters, the widespread use of AFFF has raised significant environmental concerns. This is primarily due to the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in AFFF’s composition. These PFAS compounds are known for their persistence in the environment, leading to widespread contamination of soil, groundwater, and surface water sources.
AFFF used in firefighting operations can infiltrate the soil and find its way into nearby water bodies, posing a severe threat to aquatic ecosystems. The accumulation of PFAS in aquatic organisms can lead to bioaccumulation up the food chain, potentially impacting larger animals and even humans.
Moreover, the migration of PFAS-contaminated water through groundwater systems can cause far-reaching contamination, affecting communities far from the original AFFF release sites. This poses challenges in identifying and remediating widespread contamination sources. Data from an NCBI article shows that drinking water contamination by PFAS is rampant in 300 United States military bases.
The environmental concerns associated with AFFF extend to the cleanup and remediation processes. Conventional methods need help to effectively remove PFAS from the environment, making it complex and expensive.
Addressing these environmental concerns requires a multifaceted approach, including the following:
- Proactive measures to reduce the release of AFFF into the environment
- Adopting environmentally friendly alternatives for firefighting
- Implementing proper containment and remediation strategies for existing contamination
Collaboration between regulatory agencies, industries, and the scientific community is crucial to develop sustainable solutions protecting the environment and public health.
Awareness, Training, and Prevention
In light of the growing concerns surrounding AFFF, awareness, training, and prevention have become essential in addressing the challenges posed by this firefighting agent.
Raising awareness about the risks associated with AFFF is crucial for the firefighting community, regulatory bodies, and the general public. Education campaigns can help inform firefighters about the potential health implications of exposure to AFFF.
The campaigns can also include information about the need to adopt safety protocols to minimize risk. Public awareness initiatives can also garner support for stricter regulations and the development of safer alternatives.
Comprehensive training programs are vital to ensure firefighters are well-informed about the proper handling, storage, and use of AFFF. Training should include the potential risks of PFAS exposure, recognizing AFFF-contaminated environments, and using personal protective equipment (PPE) to reduce direct contact. By empowering firefighters with knowledge and best practices, the risks associated with AFFF exposure can be minimized.
Prevention strategies are critical in reducing AFFF’s impact on firefighters and the environment. Implementing strict AFFF use and storage protocols can help prevent accidental spills and leaks. Fire departments can consider alternative firefighting agents that are less harmful to human health and the environment whenever feasible. Regular firefighting equipment maintenance and inspection can prevent AFFF leakage and contamination.
The challenges firefighters face due to Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) demand urgent attention and proactive measures. As we explored the impact of AFFF on firefighter health, it became evident that comprehensive action is required to protect them.
Addressing AFFF-related concerns requires heightened awareness, specialized training, and stringent prevention strategies. We can safeguard their well-being by equipping firefighters with knowledge about the risks associated with AFFF and adopting safer firefighting alternatives.