IFSJ Exclusive: PFAS Emergency with Vicki Quint

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Vicki Quint looks at the impact of PFAS on firefighter health and the industry plans to phase out the substance

Phase-out plans for PFAS are in process for the State of California and Europe. Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances seem to have been in perpetual phase[1]out for decades. A protracted-time span for the transition to non[1]fluorinated firefighting foams is not designed for protecting the public or firefighters.

 Since Aqueous Film-Forming Foams (AFFF) containing PFAS have been contaminating water resources worldwide, it should be noted as stated by the European Environment Agency: “It is not just individual PFAS that are harmful: combined exposure to mixtures of PFAS — also known as the ‘cocktail effect’ — adds to the health pressures as explained in the zero pollution ‘Signal’ on chemical mixtures. Human exposure to PFAS has been estimated to cost €52- 84 billion in annual health costs in Europe.”

 Healthcare costs are an important aspect of PFAS contamination, as according to UPI the resulting economic burden of treating medical Vicki Quint looks at the impact of PFAS on firefighter health and the industry plans to phase out the substance conditions caused by PFAS, a group of more than 4,700 man-made chemicals, could cost Americans a minimum of $5.5 billion and as much as $63 billion.

Based on estimates, the cost of eradicating contamination and replacing this type of chemical with safer alternatives is entirely justifiable when considering the economic and medical risks of allowing them to persist in the environment.

“Human exposure to PFAS has been estimated to cost €52-84 billion in annual health costs in Europe.”

In a US Department of Defense (DoD) Progress Report on PFAS: “These problematic properties include being extremely persistent in the natural environment; potentially presenting human and ecological health risks; bioaccumulating and biomagnifying; and exhibiting physiochemical properties that challenge traditional handling, cleaning, and decontaminating methods.”

Previous transitions of C8 to C6 firefighting foams have shown that the replacement foam will take on the properties of the formerly used foam. According to the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team: “A good indicator that the foam contains PFAS is if it mentions fluorosurfactant, fluoroprotein, C6, or the use of “fluoro.”

However, International Chemical secretariat notes: “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.”

Legal, insurance, regulatory and investment entities are all involved in PFAS chemicals. The implications for continued PFAS use are that: PFAS cannot be removed from blood – but there are on-going firefighter blood studies using blood draws as a method for lowering PFAS levels in individuals; there is inter-generational transfer of PFAS chemicals in humans; and firefighter children are more at risk for cancer.

US states are continuing to remove AFFF from fire departments in buyback and take-back programs. Funds are being allocated but they are not stretching far enough.

According to Fire Chief Joseph McHugh, Connecticut mandated the removal of PFAS from use by fire departments due to the health hazards to people caused by carcinogens in the foam. McHugh said the state had initially been expected to pay for the remediation but that is no longer the case, necessitating the use of town funds.

Whenever a firefighting foam product formulation is changed, it must be re-tested according to Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). If a product passes the same independent fire test, it would be logical to choose the foam product without PFAS or other carcinogens.

Total fluorine testing is a rapid screening method for use in measuring PFAS as testing for total PFAS can provide a more complete picture of PFAS contamination to support remediation, destruction and control efforts. Targeted analytical methods can often underestimate PFAS contamination. Other equipment used with AFFF will need to be replaced. Prevention is key since remediation costs are prohibitive. Costs will only increase with further delay and the prolonged use of PFAS.

The Foam Exposure Committee (FEC) recommends to stop using AFFF immediately. Remove or plug any fire apparatus that contains AFFF and do not use the foam. It will need to be properly removed from apparatus. Obtain F3 product as soon as practical. An external eductor can be used with F3 foam until new fire apparatus can be obtained. US fire departments have no regulations requiring them to use a fluorinated foam product.

The toxic nature of AFFF products has been known since 3M exited the PFOS business in 2000. That exit stretched out for two years. Now, 3M has announced a total exit from the PFAS manufacturing business.

“There are on-going firefighter blood studies using blood draws as a method for lowering PFAS levels in individuals.”

The AFFF Military Specification (MilSpec) has been the only foam product that limited PFAS. The US DoD released the new MilSpec for firefighting foam in early January 2023. The updated Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) FAA CertAlert 139 followed up with their notice on January 12, 2023.

The use of fluorinated foams is no longer a legal requirement. The FAA is now encouraging operators to use a suitable Fluorine Free alternative. They admit, however, that they have yet to identify one that meets the required MilSpec for use of foams in airports.

Fire departments continuing to use AFFF will keep contributing to their community’s PFAS contamination. You cannot clean up a mess until you stop the source. The priorities of an Incident Commander (IC) are: “Life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation, as taught at the National Fire Academy.”

This article was originally published in the April edition of IFSJ. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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