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Is Fluorine-Free Firefighting Foam Safer than AFFF for Firefighters’ Health?

By Jonathan Sharp
Last updated: May 17, 2024
Key Takeaways

Fluorine-Free Firefighting Foam poses a health risk to firefighters. They are, however, safer than AFFF and an important step in eliminating exposure to PFAS.

Firetruck parked inside a fire station.
Source: wirestock (Envato Elements)

Firefighting is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Firefighters are exposed to a number of severe risks, from burns and smoke inhalation to crushing injuries from collapsing structures.

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There is one significant hazard that often gets overlooked, however. Firefighters are also at high risk of toxic exposure.

Putting out a blaze involves a lot more than dousing flames with water. While firefighters extinguish raging fires, they inevitably breathe in harmful substances like formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, benzene, polychlorinated biphenyls, asbestos, hydrogen cyanide, toluene, as well as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

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It’s those last two that we’re going to cover here. Perfluoroalkyl substances and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are persistent organic pollutants (often dubbed “forever chemicals” since they break down very slowly) that are harmful to human health. They’re also found in Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF), a fire suppressant used to extinguish Class B fires.

What Is AFFF?

The formula for AFFF was discovered in the 1960s by the U.S. Navy in conjunction with the 3M Company. Since then, it has been widely used by civilian and military firefighters to combat fires caused by combustible and flammable liquids and gasses, including jet fuel, alcohol, lacquers, petroleum, oil, and gasoline.

What makes AFFF so effective is the inclusion of surfactants that spread the foam to cool and suppress fires. These surfactants, however, are PFAS and, as such, pollute the environment and harm human health.

Risks Associated with AFFF

Research on the risks associated with PFAS has been surfacing over the past few years, and the findings are appalling. Scientists have discovered that there is simply no safe level of exposure to PFAS.

Exposure to PFAS can be responsible for kidney, testicular, and prostate cancer, just to name a few. Cancer is now a leading cause of death in firefighters and these chemicals are very likely a significant contributing factor.

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Regulations Affecting AFFF and PFAS

Several states (Illinois, Maine, California, Connecticut, Colorado, New York, Washington, New Hampshire, and Minnesota) have taken proactive measures to restrict the use of AFFFs due to concerns about their health and environmental impacts. Specifically, they forbid the use of AFFFs in non-emergency situations and firefighter training exercises. 

Other jurisdictions like Washington and Maine have instituted regulations that require manufacturers of firefighter protective gear to disclose the presence of PFAS in their products. This transparency is meant to encourage fire personnel to make informed decisions about their safety equipment.

These are important steps to mitigating exposure to harmful chemicals. But it raises an important question. If not AFFF, what will firefighters use to suppress Class B fires?

How Dangerous Is Solvent Exposure from Fluorine-Free Firefighting Foam?

Alternatives to AFFF have been developed over the past decades. One of the most popular and effective of these is Fluorine-Free Firefighting Foam (F3).

F3 is a fire suppressant that doesn’t contain PFAS, which is a step in the right direction. But is it entirely risk free?

Risks Associated with Exposure to F3

Many of the solvents that might be present in F3 are neurotoxic. That means exposure can result in acute symptoms like headaches, dizziness, and lightheadedness. But it can also result in a syndrome of personality change, memory impairment, and neurological deficits.

Exposure to solvent mixtures can also cause eye, nose, and throat irritation. It can also cause problems with mood, concentration, memory, and dexterity.

A far bigger worry is the research showing that chronic exposure to certain solvents might result in irreversible central nervous system changes that are characteristic of brain damage. Long-term exposure could also be responsible for the development of Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

Firefighters exposed to solvents can also experience peripheral neuropathy and kidney disease.

F3: Not Perfectly Safe, but Safer

Cancer incidence and mortality are high among firefighters – they are 9% more likely to be diagnosed with cancer and have a 14% greater risk of dying of it when compared to the general population. Toxic exposure is a major contributor to these disheartening statistics. And while it will always be an inherent part of firefighting, it can at least be minimized by phasing out AFFF.

Even though F3 comes with some health risks, this fire suppressant is, without a doubt, a better alternative.

No firefighting foam is completely safe. That means fire departments should thoroughly assess the health risks before choosing one fire suppressant over another. They should also provide rigorous training to ensure their firefighters know how to properly use Fluorine-Free Firefighting Foam. Even with a safer alternative, it’s important to take steps to minimize exposure to solvents and the other harmful chemicals it contains.

But training can only do so much. The first line of defense should always be using a fire suppressant with fewer health risks.

There Are Safe and Viable Alternatives to AFFF

There are viable and biodegradable alternatives to AFFF on the market. These products adhere to stringent international standards for environmental safety and effectiveness. In April 2019, 22 manufacturers worldwide offered 90 fluorine-free foams. The global adoption of these alternatives reflects a shift to safer and more sustainable firefighting practices. 

While new scientific advancements are promising, it’s very important to be cautious because of past misconceptions. Let’s not forget that AFFF formulations were once deemed non-hazardous and called “safe as soap” for firefighters. Recent research has shown that these assertions were not at all accurate.

The reality is that the alternatives believed to be safer are not entirely safe either. Understanding the risks associated with PFAS doesn’t mean that we only have to stop using AFFF – it also means that we need ongoing diligence and scrutiny when adopting new firefighting technologies. 

Protecting the lives and well-being of first responders is an important responsibility. Accountability and scrutiny should be applied, even as we’re making incremental progress.

Ready to learn more? Check out our free webinar on The Cumulative Effects of Exposure to Hazardous Substances!

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Written by Jonathan Sharp

Jonathan Sharp

Jonathan Sharp is the CFO of Environmental Litigation Group, P.C., a law firm based in Birmingham, Alabama, focused on helping workers and communities who have been unknowingly exposed to life threatening hazards.

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