OPINION: Fluorine-free foams may not be the answer to the PFAS problem

Litigation Group, P.C.

The fire suppressant, aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) was first introduced in the 1960s. Made from hydrocarbon-based surfactants and fluorosurfactants, it is especially efficient at suppressing fires from highly flammable liquids. It soon became a staple in the military and just a few years later, the Department of Defense required all branches of the military to use AFFF to extinguish fuel fires. By the late 1970s, AFFF was heavily used, even outside the military.

The rise of AFFF was due in part to its marketing. Fire fighters were told it was “safe as soap.” Now research shows that it’s far from the truth. Every AFFF formulation contains about three to six percent PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances also known as “forever chemicals,” because they take hundreds, if not thousands of years to disintegrate. These forever chemicals accumulate in the environment and in our bloodstream, and even the slightest exposure to them can cause deadly diseases such as cancer.

In fact, PFAS exposure is a major occupational hazard for fire fighters, and studies show that cancer — and not the nature of the job — is a leading cause of death in the profession.

Extreme PFAS exposure isn’t just a concern to fire fighters: PFAS from AFFF is the main cause of contamination in drinking water all over the country. This is worrying, because some states, including Missouri, have never had regulations for PFAS exposure in drinking water.

Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency published new federal drinking water regulations concerning six common PFAS chemicals. Previously, the advisory limits for both PFOS and PFOA — two of the most notorious PFAS chemicals — were set at 70 parts per trillion (ppt). Now, they are down to four ppt each. However, these new federal standards don’t take effect immediately, and are expected to be enforced by 2027.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) started testing for PFAS as early as 2013, and have identified areas around the state that don’t meet drinking water standards. In St. Louis, groundwater in the vicinity of Lambert Field showed levels of 910 ppt for both PFOS and PFOA — well above the standards set by the EPA.

Other areas around the state are even more contaminated, such as Whiteman Air Force Base that has PFOS+PFOA levels of 89,000 ppt, or over 22 thousand times the stricter standards.

In 2022, Missouri was allotted $237 million to distribute toward funds that will treat contaminants such as PFAS, and the DNR is currently monitoring public water systems around the state. Still, Missouri lags behind more proactive states, such as California where there are already regulations in place regarding the use of PFAS in consumer goods, and specifically laws that address the use of PFAS in firefighting foams.

But even if Missouri did regulate the use of AFFF, what are the alternatives? With all the bad press about PFAS — not just in the state but around the country — scientists have developed FFF, or fluorine-free foam, an allegedly “safer alternative” to AFFF for both humans and the environment. But safer doesn’t equate to safe, and with the history of how AFFF was marketed, we should be just as wary of these supposedly safer substitutes.

The main issue with fluorine-free foams is that the formulations we use today — that are effective on both Class A and B fires — were first introduced in 2002 and lack the years of necessary research to determine their true impact on our health and on the environment.

Historically, these negative consequences have only been addressed after the discovery of the problem. But we know now, largely due to the widespread impact of PFAS, just how important thorough research is to introducing a solution. At the surface level, FFF truly seems like a safer alternative. However, given the toxicity of AFFF, this doesn’t mean much.

Unfortunately, there are very few studies made available to the public about the health and environmental impacts of FFF. A study published in ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering outlined a few unanswered questions when it comes to FFF, namely that there are many gaps when it comes to our understanding of FFF formulations, their chronic toxicity, and their persistence in the environment — especially when it comes to groundwater and drinking water.

It is also too soon to know if the chemicals present in many FFF formulations, such as hydrocarbon surfactants, cause long-term damage like cancer or neurological diseases. However, what we do know is that these foams are not as efficient as AFFF in putting out fuel fires. Studies show that FFF takes about twice as long to suppress fires, which means that fire fighters must use more — leading to more exposure over time.

Judging by the history of AFFF, and how AFFF manufacturers and the military knew about the toxicity of the substance for decades before the information was made available to the public, this lack of transparency on FFF does not bode well. In the rush to provide safer and more sustainable practices for our servicemen and women, we may have inadvertently given them a regrettable substitution instead.

Many PFAS chemicals have been regulated or banned around the world, most notably in the EU, where PFAS chemicals have been regulated or outright prohibited since 2008 and where there may be a blanket ban on all PFAS chemicals that will take effect, at the earliest, in 2026. With PFAS being in the forefront of the public’s consciousness, and with all of the negative consequences materializing concerning long-term exposure to PFAS, the U.S. may soon follow.

In October of 2023, the Department of Defense discontinued purchases of all PFAS-based firefighting foams. Later this year, all of the branches of the military will be required to stop the use of AFFF. If passed, the PFAS Action Act of 2021 — a bill currently in the Senate — will inhibit the use of AFFF except in certain situations, such as in airports with proper handling.

However, this pressure from the public for stronger restrictions on PFAS and thus AFFF may mean insufficient research when it comes to the safety of its alternatives. Though FFF may be touted as safe right now, the public always needs to be wary of what government agencies tell us. And now that FFF is slowly replacing AFFF, only time and proper research will tell whether or not these alternatives are actually safe, or just slightly safer than what we’re dealing with at the moment.

(Jonathan Sharp is a chief financial officer responsible for case evaluation, financial analysis, and assets management at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C., a law firm headquartered in Birmingham, Ala., assisting civilian and military fire fighters affected by exposure to toxic chemicals, especially PFAS.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top