AFFF: A Double-Edged Sword? Exploring Its Effectiveness and Environmental Concerns

Firefighters with equipment at emergency scene.

Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF) is a fire suppression agent widely used in various industries and by firefighting agencies around the world. 

It is recognized for its effectiveness in extinguishing flammable liquid fires, making it a valuable tool in combating incidents involving petroleum-based products.

However, despite its fire-fighting capabilities, AFFF has come under scrutiny due to its potential adverse effects on the environment and human health.

Applications of Aqueous Film-Forming Foam

AFFF finds extensive use in industries where flammable liquid fires pose a significant risk. Some common applications include:

  • Airports: AFFF is commonly employed in aviation firefighting to rapidly suppress fires involving jet fuel and other flammable substances commonly found in aircraft.
  • Petrochemical Facilities: Oil refineries, storage terminals, and petrochemical plants use AFFF as a fire suppression agent due to the potential hazards associated with the handling and storage of flammable liquids.
  • Military Installations: AFFF is extensively used by military organizations to combat fires involving petroleum-based fuels on naval vessels, aircraft, and other military equipment.

Health Risks Associated With AFFF

For the first time, a new federal study demonstrates a direct link between testicular cancer and PFOS, a PFAS chemical present in the blood of thousands of military people.

Researchers at the National Cancer Institute and Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences found strong evidence that firefighters among the airmen had elevated levels of PFAS in their bloodstreams.

Furthermore, according to study co-author Mark Purdue, a senior investigator at NCI, airmen diagnosed with testicular cancer had greater serum levels of PFOS than the non-diagnosed airmen.

Developed in the 1940s to repel stains and stop adhering in industrial and domestic goods, PFAS compounds number in the hundreds. 

The chemicals are present in a wide range, including makeup, nonstick cookware, water-repellent clothing, rugs, food wrappers, and foam that has been used by firemen and the military for decades.

Often referred to as “forever chemicals,” these substances build up within the human body and do not decompose in the environment. According to research, almost every American has some level of PFAS in their blood, mostly via drinking water, soil, groundwater, and food. 

According to a recent analysis by the U.S. Geological Survey, at least 45 percent of tap water in the country comes from both public and private water sources and contains at least one kind of permanent chemical.

The Fight Against AFFF

PFAS compounds have been associated with various health concerns, including liver damage, immune system dysfunction, and an increased risk of certain cancers according to TorHoerman Law.

Exposure to AFFF can occur in military settings, such as firefighting and training exercises, as well as in civilian occupations where AFFF is used.

For individuals who have been exposed to AFFF during their military service or in other occupations, filing a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) may be necessary to seek compensation and healthcare benefits. 

Filing a VA Claim

Establishing Service Connection: To file VA claims for exposure to AFFF, it is crucial to establish a service connection. Veterans must provide evidence, such as records of their duties, locations, and incidents involving AFFF.

Medical Evidence: Individuals should seek medical evaluations from healthcare professionals familiar with the health effects of AFFF exposure. These evaluations should document any symptoms, illnesses, or conditions that may be related to AFFF exposure.

Nexus Statement: Obtaining a thorough and well-supported nexus statement from a qualified medical professional is crucial for a successful VA claim.

Submitting the Claim: Veterans can submit their VA claims online through the VA’s eBenefits portal or by mail using the appropriate forms. It is essential to include all relevant evidence, such as service records, medical records, and supporting statements, to strengthen the claim.

The PACT Act

As per a report by VA News, all veterans who meet the minimum service and discharge conditions and who were exposed to toxins while serving their nation will be able to enroll directly in VA health care from March 5, 2024, without having to first apply for VA benefits. 

Veterans who have never seen combat but who experienced exposure to poisons or dangerous situations while undergoing training or serving on active service in the US will also be able to sign up.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are the environmental concerns associated with AFFF?

AFFF containing PFAS can lead to groundwater contamination when it seeps into the soil and infiltrates water sources. They are known to be persistent and can accumulate in the environment, potentially harming aquatic ecosystems.

Are there alternatives to AFFF?

Yes, there are alternative fire suppression agents available that do not contain PFAS compounds. Some examples include high-expansion foams, dry chemical agents, carbon dioxide, and clean agent systems like halon replacements.

What are the disposal challenges of AFFF?

AFFF containing PFAS compounds poses challenges for proper disposal due to their persistence in the environment. Specialized methods are required to ensure the foam is disposed of safely and does not contribute to further contamination.

It is encouraging that major regulatory actions have been triggered by increased knowledge of the long-term hazards associated with everlasting chemicals. 

The Department of Defence has established new standards for fluorine-free foams going forward and plans to phase out harmful AFFF by October 2024. 

As it steps up its attempts to eventually regulate PFAS as dangerous compounds under CERCLA, the EPA proposed the first national guidelines for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water.

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