Rethinking Fire Safety: AFFF Lawsuit Highlights Need for PFAS-Free Foams

Firefighting foams containing PFAS chemicals are facing mounting backlash. As class action lawsuits alleging long-term health and environmental damage from foam runoff gain traction nationwide, these “forever chemicals” are losing favor. 

Meanwhile, synthetic fluorine-free foams have quietly emerged as a safer alternative. As scientific evidence strengthens the case against PFAS exposure and legal pressures intensify, fire agencies must thoughtfully re-evaluate firefighting strategies and equipment. This article explores the growing case for transitioning to PFAS-free foams to better protect both firefighters and the public.

What Is AFFF, Anyway?

Firefighting foam, also known as aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), is a mixture used by firefighters to extinguish liquid fuel fires that water alone may not effectively put out. 

AFFF consists of water, ethylene glycol, or propylene glycol to increase its lifespan and special surfactant chemicals that allow it to form a thin film over fuels. This film cuts off the fuel’s contact with oxygen and helps “smother” the fire.

AFFF is made as a concentrate and added to water, often in a concentrated ratio of 3% or 6%. It is stored and applied through specialized fire suppression systems aboard ships, at fuel depots, and other industrial sites where flammable liquids pose a fire risk. Fire departments also use AFFF loaded onto crash trucks to fight large liquid fuel fires.

The surfactant chemicals that give AFFF its unique foaming and fire-smothering asbestos testing properties are known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) are two typical PFAS found in older AFFF formulae. Although these synthetic substances are quite good at forming films, their continued existence and bioaccumulation have caused health and environmental issues.

When sprayed onto an intense liquid fuel fire, AFFF quickly coats the fuel source and surface below the fire in a sticky foam layer. This cuts off the oxygen supply and draws heat away from the fire, allowing firefighters to gain control of the situation more safely than with water alone. When it comes to fighting some of the most challenging and dangerous kinds of flames, AFFF is an essential weapon.

The Toxicity of AFFF Is Concerning

One important potential cause of PFAS pollution in drinking water in Washington is AFFF. PFAS have been linked to increased cancer risk and reproductive problems in both humans and wildlife. Nearly all Americans are thought to carry some level of PFAS in their blood.

The most common way that PFAS has contaminated drinking water involves the use of AFFF for fire suppression activities. This includes putting out fires, required system testing at airports, and fire training, although AFFF has been banned for training since 2018. Contamination can also occur from spills or accidental releases. 

Once released into the environment, PFAS are difficult to clean up. They easily dissolve in water and are highly mobile, quickly contaminating groundwater, drinking water, and other natural areas. PFAS also do not break down naturally, building up over time with no natural removal method. This may increase human exposure risk to PFAS for hundreds or thousands of years.

AFFF is manufactured by big businesses like 3M, and firefighters and military personnel have been using these materials for many years. Individuals who work closely with foam, such as current and former civilian or military firemen, may be exposed to harmful substances over an extended period of time and experience adverse health impacts. 

As per TruLaw, there is a correlation between exposure to these chemicals and various cancers, along with additional health consequences like elevated cholesterol, modified liver enzymes, and minor reductions in newborn weights.

Foam used in firefighting and other applications exposes people to PFAS chemicals in many ways. AFFF lawsuits have been brought on behalf of people who have been exposed to PFAS chemicals in drinking water close to locations where AFFF was often utilized, as well as people who have been exposed at work.

Transition to Synthetic Fluorine-Free Foam

The first synthetic fluorine-free firefighting foam (SFFF) was just added to the Qualified Products List (QPL) of the US Department of Defense (DOD). This new SFFF is touted as an eco-friendly alternative to aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) and preliminary test results indicate it exceeds AFFF performance in certain areas such as burn back, drain time, and expansion ratio. 

A key advantage of SFFF is that it contains no intentionally added per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) yet works with various firefighting equipment.

For over 50 years, AFFF was widely used by the military and mandated by DOD’s MIL-SPEC F-24385 standard implemented after a deadly 1967 ship fire. Though DOD no longer required AFFF in 2019, existing performance standards and lack of effective PFAS-free alternatives meant continued AFFF use. 

In 2023, Congress required the DOD to update standards and ban new PFAS-containing AFFF by October 2023, and all use should be by October 2024. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) similarly regulates commercial airports to meet military standards. 

While authorizing SFFF use, the FAA does not currently mandate PFAS elimination, allowing continued AFFF use even after SFFF qualification. However, several states have banned PFAS foams, though exceptions allow use as federally required. Once SFFF is available, these exemptions will expire.

With a qualified SFFF now available, military bases and airports may feel pressure to transition sooner from AFFF due to potential liabilities from unnecessary PFAS exposure and evolving regulations. 

Though immediate change is not mandated, timely transition is prudent. All industries must carefully monitor regulatory changes to ensure compliance and proactively address liability in this shifting landscape.

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