AFFF, or aqueous film-forming foam, is a foam used by firefighters to extinguish fuel fires quickly on airplanes and ships. According to research, some of the same characteristics that make PFAS good for battling fires are not environmentally-friendly. The fluorine that’s present in these chemicals has also been shown to cause severe health issues.
Concerns Surrounding AFFF
While firefighting foams can pose hazardous risks to the environment when released, the PFAS in fluorinated foams such as AFFF puts the environment at an even greater risk. PFAS chemicals pose a risk to surface water and groundwater quality. In organisms, they bioaccumulate, meaning that they never go away, and they’re also extremely mobile. AFFF has been widely used in commercial aviation and in military installations, as the federal government considers these facilities a priority. The problem is that some of the same health effects could still be present, albeit to a lesser extent, wherever the foams are stored or are still currently in use, including training centers and smaller community fire departments. Emergency and fire services must be made aware of the possible health effects posed by prolonged exposure to fluorinates as well as contamination.
Increased exposure to PFAS can affect humans in a variety of ways including:
- Cholesterol levels
- Hormone regulation and production
- Thyroid hormone distribution
- A person’s immune system
Toxic Firefighting Foam: A Brief History
In 1980, 3M was one of the main producers of foams containing fluorosurfactants, which are used in the suppression of hydrocarbon fires for aircraft crash landings, and to put fires out at storage-tank facilities, chemical plants, and oil refineries.
3M’s Light Water firefighting foam, along with other fluorosurfactant-based fire suppressants, were among the highest-performing products on the market from the 1970s to the 1990s.
It wasn’t until the year 2000 that 3M admitted that the surfactants that were used in Light Water were based on PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid). They have also been collecting in the environment and showing up in animals and humans at dangerously high levels, which has raised significant health concerns. Human health concerns were also linked to fluorosurfactants that are based in PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), which is a fluorochemical that contains eight carbons.
Most firefighting experts and US military scientists have concluded that foams containing fluorosurfactants are essential in the preservation of property and life, because they contain fires quicker and more efficiently than protein-based foams that contain ground animal hooves and hydrocarbon surfactants.
In 2016, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted a study using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from drinking water inside of 553 civilian airports and 664 military training sites. In 2017, Congress received a report from the Department of Defense that acknowledged over 401 closed and active military facilities where the department either knew, or suspected, contaminated drinking water containing PFOS or PFOA compounds.
Firefighting Foam Regulations
In 2019, Washington state passed sweeping legislation that now bans firefighting foams containing PFAS as of 2020. Fire trucks will no longer be allowed to use the foam on car fires or fuel spills; however, the foam can still be used in chemical plants, petroleum refineries, military bases, and airports.
President Donald Trump put his signature on the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act in October of 2018, which requires the FAA to use fluorine-free foams in civilian airports by 2021. US airports are currently required to use PFAS-based military-grade foams. Several public interest groups including the International Persistent Organic Pollutants Elimination Network, or IPEN, and the Environmental Working Group, want to put an end to PFAS use in firefighting foams.
Fluorochemical suppliers such as AGC Chemicals, Dynax, and Chemours, as well as foam makers such as Solberg and Perimeter Solutions, for their part, have been calling for a more reasonable approach to the issue. With several exceptions, most of these companies have switched to C6 fluorosurfactants which are less likely to bioaccumulate and are much safer than PFOA or PFOS surfactants.
Foam makers have asked users to stop using fluorosurfactant-containing foam in all training exercises to limit environmental exposure. Others advocate foams without fluorine that are just as good as fluorosurfactant firefighting foams. While some believe that fluorine-free foams aren’t up to the task, there has been mounting pressure to either severely restrict or completely remove fluorosurfactants from firefighting foams.
High-Risk Groups Are Filing Cases
People at high risk of exposure to AFFF include women and men serving as military, airport, and volunteer or civilian firefighters in the US. Additional lawsuits are being filed by people who drank water contaminated with PFOS or PFOA-based fluorosurfactants, along with six-carbon replacement compounds known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and became ill. Lawsuits are also being filed by municipalities and states that are looking to recover expenses for water filtration systems.
There are large groups of people who may not even realize they are at risk. These groups include workers who may have never used firefighting foam but were near areas where it was stored, manufactured, or used. These people work in bulk fuel storage farms, airport terminals, oil refineries, and chemical plants.
Workplace-related exposure to PFAS chemicals primarily occurs through inhalation of dust or spray mist that’s contaminated with PFAS. Liquid PFAS is absorbed slowly through the skin which makes skin exposure negligible. Studies have shown that people who work in facilities where PFAS is manufactured or used in its most simplest form have increased levels of PFOA or PFOS in their blood.
How Workers Can Reduce Their Exposure to PFAS in AFFF Foam
PFAS exposure in any workplace should be minimized as much as possible. In the event that complete elimination isn’t possible, exposure risks need to be managed and assessed well, according to the exposure control pyramid. Recommendations mentioned inside of Safety Data Sheets (SDS), as well as safe work procedures, must be taken into consideration. PPE (personal protective equipment), a low level of control, should also be considered along with other options.
Firefighting foam victims may be able to file lawsuits against AFFF manufacturers, including the entities who failed to manage the use of these chemicals properly.
The following manufacturers have been named in lawsuits:
- The Chemours Company
- E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company
- National Foam, Inc.
- Kidde-Fenwal, Inc.
- Buckeye Fire Equipment Company
- Chemguard, Inc.
- Tyco Fire Products LP
- 3M Company
Contact Our Firefighting Foam Attorneys
If you, or a loved one, were near areas where firefighting foam was stored, manufactured, or used and suspect that you have developed a serious illness such as cancer from regular exposure to firefighting foam or from any other source of PFAS, you may have grounds to claim compensation with a firefighting foam lawsuit. This includes workers in the following areas:
- Bulk fuel storage farms
- Airport terminals
- Oil refineries
- Chemical plants
Call the Eichholz Law Firm to discuss your legal options against the manufacturers of firefighting foams.
- Marc S. Reisch. “What is the price of fire safety?”, Chemical & Engineering News, https://cen.acs.org/business/specialty-chemicals/price-fire-safety/97/i2. Accessed April 13, 2020.