How Deep Does the Damage Go? Examining the Consequences of Toxic Fire-Fighting Foam

How Deep Does the Damage Go? Examining the Consequences of Toxic Fire-Fighting Foam

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For over 50 years, aqueous film-forming foam has served as a trusted tool for firefighters, effectively dousing devastating fuel fires and saving lives. But while its capabilities above ground are clear, the consequences of this flame-fighting formula below the surface remain shrouded in uncertainty. 

Used for decades on military bases, airports, and industrial facilities across the nation, this fire-fighting foam leaves behind a lingering legacy of harm in the soil and water supplies it was designed to protect. However, its ingredients—perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)- carry hidden hazards.

This article dives deeper to uncover the extent of aqueous film-forming foam’s unseen damage.

Toxicity of Firefighting Foam

Aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) is a specialized type of firefighting foam used to extinguish liquid fuel fires that plain water cannot effectively fight. AFFF works by coating the fuel source, cooling the fire, and creating a barrier over the fuel to prevent oxygen from reaching it and stopping reignition.

AFFF contains water along with other components like ethylene and propylene glycol to increase its lifespan. It is mixed as a concentrate with water in either 3% or 6% solutions, depending on the water concentration.

To create its signature foamy film, AFFF relies on chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Two common types—perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)—are synthetic compounds not found naturally in the environment.

While AFFF is effective for firefighting, PFOS and PFOA pose health risks with long-term exposure. Scientific studies have found these PFAS accumulate in the body over time and are linked to cancer and other negative health outcomes in animals. 

The EPA has also identified evidence that PFOS and PFOA may cause cancer in humans. Due to these concerns, manufacturers agreed to phase out PFOS by 2002 and PFOA/PFOA-related chemicals by 2015.

Traces of PFAS, including PFOS and PFOA, can be detected in the blood of most Americans, according to federal agencies. 

For moderate exposure, they likely pose minimal threat. However, those with frequent occupational exposure, like firefighters, face elevated long-term risks from these toxic PFAS in AFFF if not properly protected and regulated.

Health Risks Associated With AFFF Usage

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are suspected of contaminating Washington’s drinking water systems, are present in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF). 

Scientific studies have connected long-term exposure to specific perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) to the immune system, developmental, and reproductive problems.

The pervasive nature of PFAS is evidenced by their presence in the blood of nearly all Americans at detectable levels.

AFFF plays an important role in fire suppression but also introduces PFAS into the environment when used. Common activities resulting in PFAS discharge include deployment during firefighting, equipment testing and maintenance at airports and military bases, and historical firefighter training exercises using AFFF before its 2018 ban. 

Once released, PFAS dissolve readily in water and spread widely due to high mobility in groundwater and other natural areas. Considering their extreme resistance to breaking down, PFAS contamination persists indefinitely without remediation.

Extended accumulation over generations exacerbates threats to public health and the environment from “forever chemicals” that do not degrade. Pathways like contaminated drinking water supplies elevate long-term PFAS absorption risks. 

While regulation and cleanups aim to curb impacts, legacy pollution ensures challenges for impacted communities for many years to come without adequate mitigation of AFFF-related contamination. Reducing exposures through alternate firefighting methods warrants further discussion.

The Growing Movement to Phase Out Hazardous AFFF

Many companies that produce Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) are facing legal consequences due to health concerns surrounding per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Numerous lawsuits, including the firefighting foam lawsuit, have been filed alleging that manufacturers knew about risks but failed to properly warn consumers. 

According to TorHoerman Law, over 7,000 AFFF lawsuits have been consolidated into multidistrict litigations to streamline the legal process.

Major companies involved in producing AFFF include 3M, DuPont, Chemours, Tyco Fire Products, Chemguard Inc., and ChemDesign Inc. The multidistrict litigation aims to centralize discovery efforts to avoid duplicating work and ensure consistent rulings on key issues.

In response to environmental and health risks from PFAS, some states have taken action to restrict AFFF use. California introduced limits on PFAS-containing AFFF to reduce contamination and promote safer alternatives. New York enacted a ban on PFAS foam sales and use. 

Washington restricted most PFAS foam applications, with exceptions for critical needs that lacked viable alternatives. Michigan also restricts PFAS foam training uses and requires safe disposal.

These state measures represent a growing movement toward eliminating hazardous foams. By enacting bans, these states are encouraging the transition to safer firefighting options without PFAS. Their leadership could encourage other states to follow suit through similar regulatory actions. It will protect public health and the environment from known PFAS compound effects.

While AFFF has served an important purpose in firefighting, the extensive and potentially lasting harm caused by PFAS contamination raises serious concerns that can no longer be ignored. Communities across the country now face the difficult challenge of living with an invisible legacy of toxic “forever chemicals” in their soil, air, and water. 

As the full scope of this public health threat gradually comes to light, we must push for bolder regulatory reforms and accountability from those who introduced these risks. Most importantly, we need sustained support for the communities most impacted, not just in cleanups but long-term healthcare, monitoring, and restitution. 

FAQs

  1. What Are the Consequences of AFFF Exposure?

A: Exposure to aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) can lead to serious health complications, such as an elevated risk of cancer and other associated ailments. You might be able to file an AFFF lawsuit to seek compensation if you were exposed to AFFF and later got cancer or other health issues. 

  1. Is Firefighting Foam Carcinogenic?

A: Yes, firefighting foam can be carcinogenic. The substances Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) found in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) have been found to be carcinogenic and harmful to human health. 

  1. What Alternatives Will Replace AFFF Foam?

A: Several alternatives to AFFF foam are available, such as Fluorine-free foam options devoid of PFAS chemicals. High-density water applications. Alternative liquid containment systems.

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