Firefighting is a noble profession that demands courage, resilience, and an unwavering commitment to public safety. Firefighters routinely put their lives on the line to protect communities from the ravages of fire. They also face less visible yet potentially hazardous challenges – one of them being the use of Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF).
AFFF is a commonly used firefighting foam known for suppressing flammable liquid fires. However, as the firefighting community has embraced AFFF over the years, concerns have emerged regarding the health risks associated with its use. In this article, we will examine the potential health hazards linked to AFFF foam and the challenges firefighters face.
Understanding Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF)
AFFF is a specialized firefighting foam that contains fluorochemical surfactants, water, and other additives. According to TorHoerman Law, the unique formulation of AFFF allows it to create a thin film on the surface of flammable liquids. This helps suppress the fire by preventing the release of flammable vapors.
This ability makes AFFF particularly effective in handling gasoline and jet fuel incidents. While its effectiveness in fire suppression is well-established, recent attention has focused on the potential health risks associated with its exposure.
As stated by the Department of Ecology, State of Washington, AFFF contains PFAS, which creates the film in aqueous film-forming foam. These cut off the air supply between the flammable liquid and air, thus reducing the fire. PFAS are widely used, as they are heat-resistant, dissolve in water easily, and spread fast so that they can control fires.
Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in AFFF
A significant source of concern regarding AFFF lies in the presence of PFAS. They are a group of human-made chemicals used in various industrial applications. PFAS are known for their persistence in the environment and their bioaccumulative nature. Thus, they can accumulate in living organisms over time.
Many AFFF formulations contain PFAS, and when the foam is deployed during firefighting operations, these chemicals can be released into the environment. PFAS is found in humans, fish, and wildlife.
PFAS do not break down easily and stay in the environment long. According to France 24, around 4.4 million tonnes of PFAS could gather in the environment over the next 30 years. This can pose numerous health challenges to those exposed to it for extended periods.
Health Risks for Firefighters
Extended exposure to AFFF has been linked to numerous health conditions. Here are some potential health risks associated with AFFF exposure for firefighters:
One of the primary health risks associated with AFFF is the potential link to cancer. PFAS, including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), have been identified as possible carcinogens. Firefighters, who are frequently exposed to AFFF during training exercises and emergency responses, may face an increased risk of developing certain cancers.
According to Federal regulations, there are at least 14 cancers and cardiac illnesses that can strike firefighters within 24 hours of starting their work. Researchers have said that people with higher levels, like 20 ng/mL or more in their blood, should avoid further exposure.
Many firefighters who have developed cancer or other health problems due to AFFF exposure have filed firefighting foam lawsuits against manufacturers. Through the firefighting foam lawsuit, plaintiffs allege that manufacturers didn’t make them aware of the potential health risks. This prevented them from making an informative decision.
Hundreds of lawsuits are currently filed by firefighters. They seek compensation for their problems. Hence, anyone who has faced health issues due to AFFF exposure can join them by filing a lawsuit.
Reproductive and Developmental Effects
Research has shown a correlation between AFFF exposure and disruptions in hormonal balance, potentially leading to reproductive complications. These disruptions may affect fertility in both males and females, posing challenges for couples trying to conceive. Additionally, exposure to PFAS has been linked to adverse pregnancy outcomes, including preterm birth and low birth weight.
The mechanisms through which AFFF exposure induces these reproductive and developmental effects are complex and involve interference with endocrine systems. PFAS compounds have been shown to mimic or disrupt hormone function, leading to dysregulation of reproductive hormones and subsequent effects on fertility and development.
Immune System Effects
Research suggests that exposure to AFFF may result in alterations to the immune system, affecting both innate and adaptive immune responses. PFAS compounds have been shown to suppress the production and activity of certain immune cells.
For instance, it can reduce the production of T lymphocytes and natural killer cells, which play crucial roles in immune defense. A study from the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine shows the same. The study concludes that AFFF exposure can induce cellular toxicity and reduce cellular proliferation.
Additionally, AFFF exposure has been linked to changes in cytokine production. This can influence the communication between immune cells and potentially disrupt the balance of immune responses. Furthermore, the immunomodulatory effects of PFAS raise concerns about the susceptibility to infections and the development of chronic inflammatory conditions.
Regulatory Responses and Industry Efforts
In response to the growing awareness of the health risks, regulatory bodies and the firefighting industry have taken steps to address the issue. Some measures include:
- Phase-out of PFAS-containing formulations ─ Recognizing the potential hazards, some firefighting agencies and manufacturers are working to phase out the use of AFFF formulations containing PFAS. This shift aims to reduce the environmental and health impacts of these chemicals.
- Research and development of PFAS-free alternatives ─ Researchers and industry experts are actively exploring alternative firefighting foams that do not contain PFAS. The goal is to maintain effective fire suppression capabilities while minimizing the potential health risks for firefighters and the environment.
- Guidelines for safe handling and disposal ─ Firefighting agencies are implementing guidelines for the safe handling, use, and disposal of AFFF. These guidelines aim to minimize unnecessary exposure and reduce the environmental impact of firefighting foam.
- Grants for treating PFAS-contaminated water bodies ─ Based on the infrastructure law, the Biden administration has granted $5 billion to address issues around water contaminants like PFAS. According to a BBC article, $2 billion from the same is designated for disadvantaged communities.
To conclude, AFFF has proven to be a valuable tool in the firefighting arsenal. However, it is essential to acknowledge and address the potential health risks associated with its use. Firefighters who selflessly put their well-being on the line to protect others deserve a thorough understanding of these risks. They should also have access to the necessary tools and knowledge to mitigate them.