Firefighting foams are of two main types, Class A and Class B. Class A foams do not contain toxic chemicals and are used to extinguish fires that may arise out of wood, plants, and paper. Class B foams are used to fight fires caused by fuels such as oil, gasoline, and jet fuel. This type of foam contains toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). Most Class B foams are aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) that contain PFASs, but fluorine-free variant of Class B foams also exist.
Major Constituents of Toxic Firefighting Agent AFFF
AFFF is a synthetic foam consisting of water, high boiling-point solvents, and fluorochemical/hydrocarbon surfactants that are highly effective in extinguishing hazardous fuel-based fires. The active ingredient in fluorinated surfactants present in AFFF is PFAS. Perfluorooctane acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) are the toxic PFASs present in AFFF solutions. AFFF concentrate contains 60-90% water and 0.3-1.8% fluorochemicals.
Exposure to PFAS on the job Threatens Health of Firefighters
In the United States, the military takes up nearly 75% of AFFF and the remaining 25% is utilized by municipal airports, oil refineries, fuel tank farms, and other industries. AFFF that broke down into toxic, unregulated chemicals such as PFOA and PFOS was used by hundreds of military bases nationwide between the years 1970 and 2015. Firefighters faced several hazards on their job, which included unnecessary exposure to the toxic PFAS chemicals present in the firefighting foam or the gear coated with PFAS they had to put on.
The leading cause of death due to workplace injury in firefighters is cancer. Firefighters are more likely to develop some form of cancer and this increased incidence is clearly because of the occupational exposure to harmful PFAS-containing AFFF. PFASs do not break down easily and cause serious health issues as these chemicals accumulate and remain in our body for a long time. Based on an evidence that suggested AFFF exposure caused kidney and testicular cancer in humans, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified PFOA as “possibly carcinogenic” to humans.
Inhalation of the mist of foam spray and PFAS contaminated dust is the primary route of workplace AFFF exposure. Exposure through skin contact is less likely because absorption of liquid PFAS into skin is slow. Studies have found out that the people who work at sites where PFAS gets manufactured or used have higher PFOA and PFOS levels in their blood. Thus, it can be concluded that long-term exposure to high concentration of PFASs causes their buildup in the body, which may eventually lead to negative health effects such as a risk of thyroid disease and kidney, testicular, and bladder cancers.
PFAS Exposure in Family Members of Firefighters and Military Personnel
Certainly, the PFAS containing fire-fighting foam – AFFF poses a serious and immediate threat to the families of firefighters and military personnel as they are also at the risk of being exposed to AFFF and may have serious health consequences. Data from various sources suggest immediate actions to be taken to protect families of the military personnel living near the military installations. The Department of Defense (DOD) conducted an analysis, which revealed that PFAS contamination was 100,000 times more than the ARSDR risk level of 11 ppt. Such a high level of PFAS contamination poses a threat of high-dose exposure to the families of military personnel and people near military sites where private wells are commonly used.
Negative Health Effects associated with AFFF exposure
As per the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR), studies in humans suggested that exposure to PFAS-containing products may lead to certain health concerns including:
Increased risk of certain cancers (testicular and kidney cancer)
Increased risk of thyroid disease
Increased risk of asthma
Elevated cholesterol level
Changes in the immune system
Fertility problems and pregnancy-induced hypertension/preeclampsia
How to Stay Safe from AFFF exposure
In the recent years, the Department of Defense is focusing on phasing out toxic foam and searching for AFFF exposure and contamination. Meanwhile, the personnel working at departments that employ firefighting AFFFs containing PFASs should follow these control measures to stay safe from exposure to AFFF:
Use personal protective equipment (PPE) and a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) while handling AFFF
Remove contaminated PPE properly and store in a bag before transporting
Contaminated PPE and SCBA should be cleaned before next use.
Immediately after an accidental exposure, use cleaning wipes on your face, neck, and hands
Take a shower within 1 hour of reaching home
Older AFFF stocks should be replaced with fluorine-free foams.
About the author:
With more than two decades of legal experience, Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. is committed to help victims of asbestos exposure/occupational industrial workplace exposure or Military/Navy personnel and their family members to receive their rightful compensation.