Exclusive: The persistent progression of firefighting foam

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Rick Nickeson, Co-chair of the Foam Exposure Committee, looks at the history and future of firefighting foam

Fire chiefs in the US can choose to protect their communities with firefighting foam. There are no regulations that require a fire department to use foams containing PFAS. Many US fire departments are changing to F3 products.

Fire chiefs realise they should not call airports for assistance because their apparatus still contains PFAS which are persistent, bioaccumulating and biomagnifying. The public has now been well informed due to impressive media attention.

According to the Spring 2021 issue of Groundwater Monitoring & Remediation: “Although Australia and European countries have used F3 alternatives for nearly a decade in certain sectors, adoption in the United States has been slowed by industry’s reliance on NFPA Standard 11 and UL 162, which address AFFF use for Class B fires…”

Two notable incidents in the US emphasise issues with short-chain C6 PFAS foams.

Chemtool Explosion & Fire, June 2021

Lubrizol’s Chemtool plant had an industrial fire involving grease, lubricating oil and fluids in Rockton, Illinois. Rockton Fire Chief Kirk Wilson declined nearby airport assistance right away because he knew the AFFF contained PFAS which would contaminate his community.

A private firefighting crew hired by the company came in and used 3,200 gallons of PFAS-containing foam concentrate. A report in the Chicago Times said: “The problem, according to state and federal environmental officials, is that the private company, Louisiana-based US Fire Pump, sprayed a foam containing perfluorooctanoic acid, part of a class of chemicals known as PFAS. Nationally, there is a push to ban these chemicals for fear that they are harmful to humans, potentially causing organ damage and cancer.”

The Chemtool / Lubrizol contractor US Fire Pump confirmed the foam used was Signature Series 1X3% C6AR-AFFF, according to the Illinois EPA. The foam is a fluorinated surfactant and may contain Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) as an unintended by-product, and the foam can break down into Perfluorohexanoic acid (PFHxA) and potentially others.

EPA reported: “The fire chief had not been previously informed that the foam contained PFAS. He directed that operations be stopped while the company implemented steps recommended by U.S. EPA and IEPA to contain runoff.” The Chicago Sun-Times reported that “US Fire Pump used PFAS-containing foam for about three hours on Tuesday, even though state and federal officials had warned against doing so.”

According to reports, the team switched to another foam without the chemicals on orders of the fire chief. Foam not containing PFAS became available and was then used.

Former National Institute for Environmental Health (NIEHS) director and toxicologist, Dr. Linda Birnbaum, said it was ‘amazing’ that the company would use PFAS-containing foam when alternatives were available.

The Madison, Wisconsin PFAS Transformer Fires

In July 2019, Madison, Wisconsin experienced transformer fires where firefighting foam, potentially containing harmful per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), was used. Amid growing concern, the city affirmed the foam used, FireAde 2000, did contain a lesser-known PFAS compound, PFHxA, contradicting the manufacturer’s claims. This revelation led to testing for 34 PFAS compounds.

The city then undertook the cleanup of the transformer site. Lab tests detected high concentrations of 6:2 Fluorotelomer Sulfonate (6:2 FTS), a “more environmentally friendly” PFAS, despite its unknown long-term impacts. By late September, PFAS was found in Lake Monona, with groundwater under the transformer site having PFAS levels triple the safety limit. The city faced criticism for labeling PFHxA and 6:2 FTS as “environmentally friendly”, considering their demonstrated toxicity and mobility.

A report confirmed PFAS migration from the fire site to Lake Monona, where 6:2 FTS exceeded safety thresholds in most sampled locations. The city’s failure to disclose high PFAS levels led to public outcry. The levels in storm sewer outlets reached up to 92 ppt, inclusive of PFAS compounds beyond proposed regulations. Subsequent critique argued initial PFAS reports were “incomplete and misleading”, given PFAS levels post-fire were substantially higher than first stated.

In December, the Madison Fire Department switched to PFAS-free foam, a significant move towards reducing environmental and health hazards. Despite validation of the new foam’s PFAS-free status, it contained chemicals listed as carcinogenic under California Prop 65, underlining the urgency for safer firefighting alternatives. This saga encapsulated the environmental risks associated with firefighting foams and highlighted the need for heightened vigilance.

The never-ending transition of firefighting foams

In May 2023, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) issued a statement: “Restrictions are designed to control an unacceptable risk from the manufacture, use, or placing of a substance on the market.” Such restrictions on PFAS have been missing worldwide for decades.

On May 12, 2022, ChemSec reported: “But surprise, surprise – the C6 substances have turned out to be just as hazardous as the C8 ones, leading to a plethora of so-called regrettable substitution, which is when you swap one harmful chemical for an equally problematic one. So now, the C6 substances are subject to proposals called the PFHxA and PFHxS restrictions. As in previous PFAS restrictions, chemicals that degrade into C6 substances are included, and an indicative list of substances has been provided.”

Firefighting foams with C6 contain 2 to 3 times more PFAS than the older AFFF products. This fact was confirmed in the Foam Exposure Committee’s testing of active firefighting foam samples taken from fire departments.

The shorter chain PFAS are: more difficult to filter from water, more mobile and fast and just as difficult to clean and remediate as others. If you currently use C6 foam products or if your department chooses a C6 firefighting foam, you can certainly plan on another transition.

Some state-level environmental entities are making the firefighting foam product choice with decisions made solely based upon manufacturers’ direct marketing materials. This has created an issue. A western state is collecting PFAS foams presently in a take-back program while replacing them with another PFAS foam product.

Several New England state level environmental offices list foams on the state firefighting foam contract lists that are fluorine-free but contain carcinogens. There are certainly fire-tested F3 products available that do not contain carcinogens.

It is now being fully acknowledged that F3 foam blankets last longer than AFFF even though this has always been the case. F3 foams do not need to be re-applied as frequently as an AFFF. Slower drain time is considered a good thing. This fact means the foam requires less re-application and less product.

In a recent webinar, Jerry Back of Jensen Hughes, Inc. noted that fluorine-free foams: are “consistent over a range of concentration levels, showed no difference at all from AFFF, and were still adequate across the board.

The fire service should be aware that some manufacturers utilise multiple labels to market the same products. You should not be replacing a fluorinated foam with another fluorinated foam at this point unless your intent is to continue exposing your firefighters and citizens unnecessarily.

This exclusive article was originally published in the June 2023 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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