In the fire protection industry, firefighting foam is a key topic of discussion. Firefighting foam is an exceptionally effective fire suppression tool, helping to minimize the impact of some of the worst possible fires, including flammable liquid fires. Unfortunately, the most effective of these firefighting foams, aqueous film forming foam or AFFF contains PFAS, which the EPA has stated to be dangerous. The concern surrounding PFAS and its use in AFFF is real, and it is actively changing the fire protection agency.
If you’re wondering about using firefighting foam, are learning about PFAS, or want to know what fluorine-free fire fighting options are available, this blog will answer many of those questions and provide a general overview of PFAS and its impact on the industry.
Starting From the Beginning: The History of PFAS
PFAS, also known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances are a collection of manufactured chemicals. Also called “forever chemicals” PFAS includes PFOA, PFOS, Gen X, and many other fluorinated chemicals that feature strong fluorine-carbon bonds that make them virtually indestructible.
PFAS were accidentally developed by chemists at 3M and Dupont. During an experiment, a coating was created that was discovered to repel both oil and water, and that was resistant to any method designed to break apart the atoms within the chemical. This chemical ended up being PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), the first PFAS ever created.
After this initial discovery, Dupont went on to use the chemical in their revolutionary product, “Teflon.” Shortly after, 3M invented its own PFAS chemical (PFOS), which they branded, “Scotchgard.”
As we now know, both of these applications had exceptional commercial uses, but the very characteristics that make Teflon and Scotchgard such effective products are just what make them so dangerous to humans and the environment.
What are the Dangers of PFAS?
PFAS do not degrade or break down, and are shown to be extremely persistent in both the environment and in the human body. This extreme pervasiveness is why PFAS are so dangerous.
In addition to the fact that PFAS do not break down or biodegrade over time, they are also exceptionally persistent. PFAS can move through water, soil, and even concrete to seep into the water system. From there, PFAS accumulate over time, both in the environment and in animal and human bodies. This brings us to the next danger.
PFAS Health Concerns
Because PFAS are so persistent, they can move through nearly anything to accumulate and remain within the human body. This presents health concerns, as initial studies have shown that PFAS, PFOA, and PFOS exposure may be linked to the following health issues:
- Low infant birth weights
- Liver and kidney effects
- Reproductive and developmental effects
- Thyroid hormone disruption
- And even immunological effects
While many of the long-term effects of PFAS are still unknown, we do know that these forever chemicals are not good for humans, or for the environment. That’s why the EPA and other American legislative bodies have begun to take action.
Legislation Against PFAS
The American government and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are both looking for ways to minimize human exposure to these forever chemicals.
While every state has its own rules and regulations:
- California banned PFAS in food packaging and paper straws. The state has also passed legislation banning the use of PFAS in firefighting foams starting in 2028.
- Connecticut will prohibit the sale of any consumer packaging that contains PFAS starting in 2024
- Maine will ban any cosmetics containing PFAS for sale starting in 2030
- Vermont established a ban of PFAS for food packaging
- And other states like New Mexico and Minnesota are very close to passing similar bills.
There are also a number of federal bills that have been introduced to Congress. The PFAS Action Act of 2021 aims to involve the EPA more directly in regulating and setting standards for PFAS use and cleanup. The Keep Food Containers Safe from PFAS Act was introduced to the Senate in November of 2021 and is likely to pass.
Beyond all of this sweeping legislation, there are also bans that directly impact the firefighting industry. As California has made clear, banning the use of PFAS in firefighting foam is next on the list — a necessary move that will protect our communities and the environment, but a difficult transition for the fire protection industry to make.
Why are some firefighting foams being banned?
The US Department of Defense has confirmed that AFFF is a major environmentally contaminating source of PFAS. When AFFF is used to suppress a fire, the PFAS within the foam is able to seep into the environment and groundwater and continues to contaminate anything in its path. For this reason, many states are considering restricting the use of and even banning AFFF, and the Department of Defense has even mandated that military organizations phase out firefighting foams containing PFAS by 2024.
How Legislation Against PFAS is Affecting the Firefighting Industry
Given much of this legislation to restrict the use of and ban AFFF, facilities that implement the firefighting foam should prepare. These restrictions will only continue to increase.
What Should Your Facility Do Now to Reduce PFAS Contamination from Firefighting Foam?
While regulations vary for every state, there are some similarities that might help your facility start to reduce the use of and transition away from AFFF. For example, Michigan’s use guidelines for Class B AFFF present a common middle ground that many governments, fire protection officials, and environmental & groundwater experts can compromise on. Some of these changes include:
- AFFF may still be used, but only in specific, dire circumstances, including:
- Hydrocarbon fires
- Alcohol-based products
- Aviation accidents
- In any other situation, including fire safety and fire protection system training, another PFAS-free alternative must be used.
While this does not completely eliminate the use of AFFF, it does reduce environmental exposure to large quantities of PFAS, while still keeping people and infrastructure as safe as possible in the event of a fire.
What Should Your Facility Do To Prepare For Potential Bans to AFFF?
As PFAS bans become more prevalent, facilities that commonly deal with significant flammable liquid hazards should prepare to transition away from AFFF altogether. Common applications that should be hyper aware of the PFAS situation include:
- Chemical plants
- Aviation operations
- Highway emergency response
- Oil refineries, terminals, and bulk fuel storage farms
- Military facilities
- Municipal services like fire departments
- Flammable liquid storage and processing facilities
Are Fluorine Free Foams a Solution to the PFAS & AFFF Problem?
Fluorine-free foams are often presented as a potential solution for those looking to move entirely away from firefighting foams containing PFAS. But is that a viable solution?
While fluorine-free foams have a range of applications, they do present a stark contrast to AFFF. In general, fluorine-free foams must be applied in much greater quantities, and for greater periods of time to extinguish a fire when compared with AFFF. While research is still being conducted, the greatest concern with fluorine-free foams (FFF) is that they are not as effective or as fast at fire suppression as AFFF.
For now, that means there’s no one-to-one alternative solution for many facilities, and those that can switch to PFAS-free firefighting foams will require some system upgrades or changes to accommodate the differing requirements of fluorine-free foams.
How Vanguard Can Help with System Modifications and Disposal
For areas that are affected by immediate AFFF bans, and for facilities that are able to transition to fluorine-free foam, it’s good to know that help is available.
Vanguard’s Industrial Fire Protection team can help with both system modifications for those transitioning to fluorine free foam, as well as the safe disposal of existing AFFF. Our services include, but are not limited to:
- Engineering evaluations to help your facility determine how best to transition away from AFFF
- Foam concentrate replacement
- Hardware replacement as required
- Third-party disposal of AFFF
The time to move away from AFFF is now. Fire protection manufacturers are actively working to develop better alternatives for AFFF, but the EPA has made it clear that firefighting foams containing PFAS must be phased out sooner or later.
Because of the heightened importance of this topic, especially as Congress looks to vote on the PFAS Action Act, Vanguard will be dedicating much more time to creating and publishing information on firefighting foams, reducing facility use of AFFF, and educational content on potential alternatives.
If you have any questions about AFFF or your facility’s ability to transition to fluorine-free foams, get in touch with our team today.