3 Preventive Measures for Firefighters to Combat AFFF Risks

Firefighters face numerous risks in the line of duty, from smoke inhalation to physical injuries. As found by a ScienceDirect study, they are exposed to physical and psychological hazards, including chemicals, biological agents, traumatic events, etc. Responding to emergencies in unfamiliar locations also contributes to their risks of accidents and injuries. Therefore, firefighting is among the fields that report the most occupational accidents.

One often-overlooked hazard is exposure to aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), commonly used in firefighting to suppress flammable liquid fires. AFFF contains per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) linked to various health concerns, including cancer and environmental pollution.

In this article, we’ll explore 3 preventive measures firefighters can implement to mitigate the risks associated with AFFF exposure.

The Need for Combating AFFF Risks

AFFF is a firefighting agent widely used to extinguish fires involving flammable liquids. While effective, it contains chemicals known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which have been linked to various health and environmental concerns.

An NCBI study shows that this exposure to PFAS compounds has been associated with adverse health effects. Firefighters exposed to PFAS are said to have elevated risks of thyroid, testicular, colon, prostate, and kidney cancers. Moreover, the levels of PFAS accumulation in firefighters’ bodies are also high.

Due to their frequent and close contact with AFFF, firefighters are at heightened risk of exposure to these harmful chemicals. Their work often necessitates the extensive use of aqueous film-forming foam, further increasing their vulnerability.

Therefore, many firefighters have even filed lawsuits against aqueous film-forming foam manufacturers. According to TruLaw, these lawsuits have been consolidated into multidistrict litigation (MDL) no 2873. Currently, 8,061 cases are pending in this MDL as of May 2024. This shows an increase of over 300 cases in April compared to 7,738 lawsuits that were pending as of April 2024.

Anyone who developed a medical condition due to exposure to aqueous film-forming foam can file an AFFF lawsuit. Through an AFFF lawsuit, plaintiffs can fight for justice to hold manufacturers accountable for their negligence. They can also seek fair compensation for damages like medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, etc.

Preventive Measures

AFFF contains PFAS linked to various health and environmental risks. To mitigate these risks, firefighters can take several preventive measures:

Training and Education

Proper training and education are essential for firefighters to understand the risks associated with AFFF exposure and how to minimize them effectively. Fire departments should provide comprehensive training on the safe use of AFFF, including proper application techniques, handling procedures, and disposal methods.

Additionally, military and firefighting departments can switch to alternatives for training. There is no doubt that the substitutes are not good enough yet to completely replace AFFF in actual scenarios. However, they can be used for training purposes to reduce the exposure risks.

In fact, training sites can switch to alternatives like fluorine-free foam (F3) seamlessly. An ACS Publications study concludes that drinking water contamination by PFAS is widespread around 300 US military sites. 

One of the most significant reasons behind this is that these sites use aqueous film-forming foam for firefighting training. By switching to safer alternatives for training, military and firefighting departments can safeguard not only their employees but also residents living nearby.

Minimize AFFF Use

By minimizing the use of AFFF, firefighters can reduce their direct exposure to PFAS and mitigate their potential health risks. Alternative firefighting techniques and technologies, such as F3, allow for safer foam application and can help decrease the overall consumption of AFFF.

Additionally, training programs that emphasize the judicious use of AFFF and promote awareness of its environmental and health impacts are essential. Furthermore, stricter regulations regarding AFFF use can encourage fire departments to explore alternative firefighting methods and invest in safer, PFAS-free alternatives. This includes adopting environmentally friendly foam concentrates and employing strategies to contain and properly dispose of AFFF runoff.

The problem is that while these alternatives effectively handle most fires, they cannot suppress oil-based fires as efficiently. Moreover, the quantity required to suppress oil-based fires is more than that required by AFFF.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Wearing appropriate PPE is crucial for reducing exposure to aqueous film-forming foam and other hazardous materials during firefighting operations. Firefighters should wear full protective gear, including turnout gear, gloves, boots, and respiratory protection when handling AFFF.

A Sage Journals study says that firefighters’ PPE is designed to protect them from chemical, physical, or thermal risks. However, some PPE is even made from PFAS chemicals. Due to the risks associated with PFAS, the U.S. Fire Service has started using non-PFAS water-repellant gear. The problem, however, is that while non-PFAS gear is water—and thermal-repellant, it is not oil—and diesel-repellant.

Frequently Asked Questions

What precautions must firefighters take?

Before participating in firefighting operations, personnel must properly analyze the situation, considering elements such as fire intensity, structural stability, and potential threats. PPE is essential, including fire-resistant clothes, helmets, gloves, and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), which protect against heat, flames, and hazardous fumes.

Which feature makes the AFFF so successful in combating liquid fires?

Aqueous film-forming foam is known for its exceptional efficacy in extinguishing liquid flames, particularly those fueled by hydrocarbons like gasoline and oil. Its effectiveness can be ascribed to its particular composition, which produces a thin coating over the liquid surface, smothering the flames.

What are the issues with AFFF?

Despite its efficiency, the aqueous film-forming foam has certain downsides. One major worry is its environmental effect, including per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are persistent and possibly toxic compounds. PFAS can leak into soil and water, causing threats to ecosystems and human health.

What will replace AFFF foam?

Fluorine-free foams (F3) are a promising option that uses other surfactants to attain similar fire control characteristics. These ecologically friendly alternatives address concerns about aqueous film-forming foam while ensuring firefighters can access useful equipment for tackling liquid fires.

To conclude, firefighters face significant risks of exposure to AFFF and PFAS compounds during firefighting operations. However, by implementing proactive preventive measures from this article, firefighters can reduce their risk of exposure and protect their health and well-being. Fire departments and firefighters must prioritize safety and take concrete steps to combat aqueous film-forming foam risks effectively.