Firefighters enter burning buildings every day to protect lives and property. They also know that their job puts them at risk for certain injuries. Data reveals that 60,750 firefighter injuries occurred in 2021 while fighting fires. However, do you know that firefighters are also vulnerable to several long-term diseases?
These illnesses are related to the chemicals in the Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) used to extinguish fires. In this article, we will discuss the ingredients of AFFF and how they affect your health.
Understanding AFFF Firefighting Foam
AFFF is a foam that is used for firefighting. It consists of water, aqueous film-forming agents (AFA), and surfactants. AFA’s are chemicals that help create the foam when mixed with water. The firefighting foam is available in 3 and 6 percent formulas, depending on the quantity of water present.
Surfactants are compounds that reduce surface tension between liquids or between a liquid and solid surface. This allows them to spread out evenly over an area without forming lumps or clumps of material.
The most common AFA used in these types of foams is ammonium phosphate dodecahydrate (ADHP). Other types include C3H5NO2P(NH4)2H2O, 2-ethylhexyl pyrrolidone (EHPD), dimethylpolysiloxane polymerized with octamethylcyclotetrasiloxane, etc.
The Ingredients of AFFF
AFFF is a fire suppressant commonly used to extinguish flammable liquid fires. It consists of various ingredients that work together to form a foam blanket on the surface of the burning liquid. The specific formulation of AFFF can vary, but the main ingredients typically include:
AFFF is primarily composed of water, which acts as the base for the foam solution. Water is essential for cooling and diluting the burning liquid and for generating the foam.
When other ingredients are released with the water, they form a foam. This foam cuts out the oxygen supply to the fire, thereby reducing it.
AFFF is made up of a mixture of fluorinated surfactants and water. Fluorinated surfactants, recognized for their toxicity to both humans and animals, have a prolonged environmental presence.
These chemical compounds play a role in lowering the surface tension of water, facilitating the effective spread of foam over flammable liquid surfaces. By aiding in the formation of a stable and thin film, these compounds contribute to covering the burning fuel, effectively inhibiting the release of flammable vapors.
According to TorHoerman Law, AFFF includes fluorosurfactants like Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals. These are also known as forever chemicals because they do not break down. Thus, they remain in the environment and accumulate over time. Exposure to these chemicals regularly can lead to health problems, including various forms of cancer.
Hence, firefighters and military personnel constantly exposed to AFFF are facing several health issues. Many people suffering from this problem have filed an AFFF foam lawsuit. With the AFFF foam lawsuit, the plaintiffs allege the manufacturers failed to warn them of potential health problems. Therefore, they deserve compensation for the troubles they have faced.
Surfactants, short for “surface-active agents,” are molecules that have both a hydrophilic (water-attracting) and a hydrophobic (water-repelling) part. Hydrocarbon surfactants have a hydrophobic tail that interacts with the hydrophobic components of flammable liquids, such as hydrocarbons like gasoline, oil, and diesel. The hydrophilic head of the surfactant interacts with water.
Hydrocarbon surfactants are critical for reducing the surface tension of water, allowing it to spread more easily across the surface of the burning liquid. By lowering the surface tension, the water can wet the fuel more effectively and form a continuous film on top of it. This film blocks the release of flammable vapors and prevents the fire from reigniting.
Hydrocarbon surfactants help create a homogeneous mixture of the AFFF solution, ensuring that the water and other components are well-mixed. This uniform distribution of ingredients is vital for the foam’s performance, as it helps maintain a stable and consistent foam blanket on the burning fuel.
Thickening agents are added to the AFFF firefighting foam to make it thicker. They can be made from different chemicals than other ingredients in the foam. However, they’re still considered part of the firefighting agent itself.
AFFF might incorporate thickening agents such as hydrocolloids or polymers to elevate the solution’s viscosity. These additives assist the foam in adhering to the fuel’s surface, thereby improving its capacity to create a robust film.
It’s important to understand that thickening agents lack regulation under any federal or international standards. Consequently, even if a manufacturer asserts that its product is free from additives, there could still be a range of chemicals present.
Stabilizing agents are added to AFFF to prevent the foam from breaking down or dissipating too quickly. They help maintain the integrity of the foam blanket, ensuring that it remains effective for an extended period.
One of the key challenges in fighting flammable liquid fires with foam is preventing the foam from draining away from the fire zone. Stabilizing agents can improve the foam’s resistance to drainage, allowing it to cling to the burning fuel more effectively.
Flammable liquid fires can involve high temperatures, intense heat radiation, and turbulent conditions. Stabilizing agents are designed to enhance the foam’s resistance to these challenging fire dynamics. They help the foam maintain its structure and stay in place, even when exposed to significant heat and agitation.
Health Implications of Firefighting Foam
The health implications of firefighting foam are complicated, but there are some things you can be sure of:
- AFFF is toxic to humans. It’s been linked to cancer and other diseases in firefighters who were exposed to it during their work. This includes both direct exposure as well as indirect exposure.
- AFFF poses toxicity risks to both animals and plants. The optimal course of action for safeguarding yourself, your family, and your pets is to avoid inhaling contaminated air.
One of the most toxic compounds that firefighters are exposed to is asbestos. It is linked to the rare cancer termed mesothelioma. Asbestos contamination can also lead to lung cancer, ovarian cancer, and Asbestosis.
Several lawsuits have been filed against the manufacturers of AFFF, as well as against the government. Several lawsuits were also filed by firefighters who were exposed to AFFF during their service and later developed health problems.
As of 2023, there are more than 15,000 claims that have been filed against DuPont, Chemours, and Corteva, along with 3M. These are the major manufacturers of PFAS in the U.S. Smaller ones are also facing lawsuits.
Aqueous Film-Forming Foam has been an invaluable tool in the arsenal of firefighters, allowing them to tackle flammable liquid fires effectively. However, the presence of PFAS chemicals in AFFF has raised significant health and environmental concerns.
Efforts are underway to address these issues, with a focus on reducing PFAS use, improving storage and handling procedures, and increasing research and regulation. It is crucial to strike a balance between effective firefighting and safeguarding everyone’s health. Public awareness and responsible practices in the use and disposal of AFFF are essential steps toward achieving this balance.