Our first clue was when 3M announced that they were phasing out production of PFOA and PFOS in 2000.
Per- and Polyfluorinated (PFAS) are synthetic chemical compounds, all very similar and extremely toxic. Persistence is key to their usefulness but also why the chemicals bioaccumulate in your body. When you have continuous exposures, this is a problem as PFAS will continue building up in your blood, organs and tissues.
The chemical compounds bind to proteins in your blood so they can affect every system in the body, especially blood-rich organs such as your brain, heart and liver.
PFOA and PFOS are only two PFAS of 12,200+ known chemicals in the class.
Foam Exposure Committee (FEC) members organized in 2019 because of heightened concerns about firefighter health and safety. FEC members have diverse, extensive fire backgrounds. We are in fire-related businesses including two members who are retired fire chiefs, an active firefighter and two firefighter widows.
Collectively, the committee has over 150+ years of fire-related experience.
A mission statement was agreed upon: To reduce firefighter / first responder exposures to perfluorinated chemicals used in firefighting foams in order to protect their health and lives. We will recommend a list of firefighting products for fire departments based upon testing, which we believe have no intentionally added fluorine. First responders should have immediate access to safer fluorine-free firefighting foams.
One of the main areas FEC believed most important was to really know which firefighting foams were fluorine-free foams (F3).
The committee’s first project was to obtain firefighting foam samples directly from active, working fire departments, airports and county caches. Basic standards were set up. Independent total fluorine testing was conducted.
A key factor in developing the F3 list was that a firefighting foam should have a valid fire test rating, i.e., NFPA 18, UL 162, ICAO.
The committee’s focus is on getting information directly to the fire service. Bulletins are sent through the Fire Department Service Announcement (FDSA) which FEC set up as a distribution channel. FEC bulletins have proven useful to other entities.
The Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) posts the FEC bulletins under ‘Safety Resources’ at: https://fdsoa.org/Foam-Exposure-Info
- Firefighters have higher levels of PFAS in their blood than the general population.
- Blood has been tested for PFAS since the 1960s.
- Sensitive analytical methods have been available for testing perfluorochemicals in human blood since at least 2008 including biomarkers.
- 9/11 first responders have been involved in many medical studies of PFCs (PFAS).
- PFAS in drinking water can create PFAS blood levels in humans at 106 times the amount found in the drinking-water resources.
- PFAS is transferred generationally as it is found in umbilical cord blood.
Fire departments are charged with protecting communities. The transition from AFFF use will allow the fire service to protect themselves and communities from further PFAS contamination.
There are commercially available fluorine-free foams that have been used successfully during the past 20 years including at international airports. Heathrow Airport in England switched over to F3 in 2012 and has successfully handled multiple airplane crashes.
AFFF is exceptionally good at pan fires – not so much on crumpled fuselage or a running fuel fire. Some F3s do not need an added aggregate while AFFF must have an aggregate in order to suppress a 3D fire.
AFFF use is now being curtailed through intense citizen pressure, legal actions and risk management decisions. With rapidly changing regulations and laws, decisions are already affecting the fire service.
When choosing a new F3 foam, consider that there could be other carcinogenic chemicals in it. If there is an F3 foam without carcinogens and it has passed the same fire-testing criteria, why would you place those chemicals into your community?
FEC is still unconvinced that an apparatus foam tank can be fully decontaminated because of the extreme PFAS traits of sticking to surfaces. If F3 is added to a foam tank with residual Class B / AFFF, the characteristics of the PFAS-containing foam will mix with the F3. You will not have a fluorine-free foam in your apparatus tank.
Action to transition is time critical. If such direct exposures can be cut off at the source of contamination and be eliminated, do it.
Fire departments have been and are unknowingly contaminating their communities. This has caused some distress within the fire service since they were not made aware of the toxicity problems.
Those same fire departments can be held responsible for AFFF releases, which could ultimately lead to a loss of public trust. Some fire departments are already being fined and cited within the US for using AFFF.
In 2019, I was asked to give testimony at a state Senate PFAS Committee hearing. Research on my late husband, Chief Michael Quint, who had died of multiple cancers was relevant. Chief had been the overall Incident Commander on a world-class tyre fire where foam was also used.
A major foam manufacturer and Fire Fighting Foam Coalition representatives reported their viewpoints. I followed them. After I had finished speaking, committee members asked questions.
The last question came from the chairman. He asked me, ‘Where are the firefighters!?’ I responded, ‘They do not know. They have not been told.’
Now, you know.