In February 2019, the EPA released a PFAS Action Plan identifying some of the concerns with PFAS, as well as the specific ways that the agency plans to take action in reducing PFAS exposure. If you’re not sure what PFAS are, what they’re used for, and specifically how they relate to the fire protection industry, we’ve got answers. Here’s what you need to know about PFAS and fire protection:
What Are PFAS?
PFAS are a collection of manufactured chemicals, commonly known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS includes PFOA, PFOS, Gen X, and many other fluorinated chemicals that are characterized by strong fluorine-carbon bonds. These bonds make the chemicals indestructible.
What Are PFAS Used For?
The term PFAS includes a large category of chemicals. Different classes of these chemicals are used in a variety of applications, from household items like the non-stick coating on your kitchen pans and certain cleaning products to large-scale applications like electronics manufacturing and firefighting foams.
Why Are PFAS Used in Firefighting?
The indestructible qualities of PFAS, along with their ability to repel both oil and water, are what make them so effective in firefighting solutions. Primarily used in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), these chemicals act as a thermal and evaporation barrier that inhibits and eventually extinguishes combustion. Learn more about how PFAS and aqueous-film-forming-foam in our article Everything You Need to Know About AFFF.
Why is the Fire Suppression & Protection Industry Moving Away from PFAS?
The indestructible qualities that make PFAS such an effective firefighting solution are also part of the reason that the fire protection industry is starting to move away from them. PFAS are negatively pervasive. That means they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time, both in the environment and in animal and human bodies.
How Are People Exposed to PFAS?
Because PFAS are so persistent, they are able to move through water, soil, and even concrete, where they end up accumulating in the environment, living organisms, and even in humans. PFAS don’t break down over time, which means they can stay in the body and in the environment for long periods of time. People are exposed to PFAS through:
- Foods that have been packaged in PFAS-containing materials
- Foods that have been grown in PFAS-contaminated water or soil.
- Household products that contain PFAS, like non-stick pans, cleaning agents, paints, and more.
- Drinking water that has been contaminated with PFAS
Again, PFAS are persistent chemicals. They have the ability to move through most substances and accumulate. These qualities make it very easy for humans to become exposed to PFAS, and is the major reason that the firefighting industry is looking for solutions to fire suppression agents like AFFF.
Are There Health Concerns Related to PFAS?
The EPA is continuing to conduct studies on PFAS and its effect on human health. At this point, the EPA reminds us that people are exposed to PFAS over time. As PFAS levels in their bodies begin to increase, there is the potential that their exposure can increase to the point where they may suffer from adverse health effects. You can learn more about the EPA’s studies on health concerns related to PFAS here.
Initial studies have shown that PFOA and PFOS (specific types of PFAS that manufacturers have already agreed to phase out) can cause liver and kidney, reproductive and developmental, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. Consistent findings from human studies have shown increased cholesterol levels, with more limited findings related to:
- Infant birth weights
- Cancer (for PFOA)
- Thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS)
- Effects on the immune system
It’s important to remember that many of these studies are still in the early stages, and that manufacturers and industry professionals are working to phase out specific PFAS chemicals like PFOA and PFOS. While we still don’t know what the long-term effects of PFAS are, we can work to limit further exposure to and expansion of these chemicals by innovating and implementing new solutions.
What You Can Do to Phase Out PFAS
If you are concerned about PFAS, there are actions you can take to phase out PFAS both as a consumer and as a customer of the fire protection industry.
As a consumer, you can pay close attention to the products and foods you buy, looking for labels that indicate a product is PFAS free. There are many alternative options to traditional nonstick pans and older PFAS household products on the market now, with new solutions every day.
As a customer of the fire protection industry, whether you’re working to protect an oil and gas facility or an aviation operation, you can seek fire protection alternatives to AFFF. We’ve written extensively on clean agents, environmentally friendly trends in fire suppression, and alternatives to AFFF, but if you have more questions about how to steer away from PFAS, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with our Industrial Fire Protection Team. We’d be happy to provide you with any additional information on PFAS, safe disposal and replacement solutions, and more.