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Firefighting Foam and Cancer: Understanding the Hidden Threat

Firefighting foam is a critical tool for firefighters but may pose a grave health risk. It is commonly referred to as Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF), which is a blend of synthetic chemicals and water. This composition serves as an effective firefighting agent, especially for extinguishing fires that involve flammable liquids. 

AFFF is renowned for its fire-extinguishing capabilities, but it includes a class of chemicals called per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

PFAS, recognized for their persistence in the environment and the human body, are linked to health concerns like cancer. However, despite the growing evidence of its danger, firefighting foam is still widely used. Many fire departments are still using fire-extinguishing foam containing PFAS, and there is no clear timeline for when these foams will be phased out.

In this article, we uncover the alarming link between firefighting foam and cancer, revealing a concealed threat to firefighters’ health.

The Science Behind AFFF

AFFF is a fire suppression foam used to extinguish flammable liquid fires. It contains water, fluorinated surfactants, and other additives. Fluorinated surfactants are chemicals that have a unique ability to reduce the surface tension of water. It helps form a thin film over the surface of a flammable liquid, which prevents reigniting.

It also works by cooling, smothering, and preventing the spread of fire. The water in the composition cools the fuel, and the foam blanket smothers the fire by preventing oxygen from reaching the fuel. The fluorinated surfactants also help to prevent the spread of fire by reducing the surface tension of the propellant. It forms a film that prevents vaporizing.

According to CMI Market Research, the US fire-extinguishing foam market will have a 1.7% CAGR from 2023-2032. By 2032, the valuation is expected to rise to USD 1.4 billion.

These findings emphasize the need to grasp AFFF’s science and its health implications for frontline fire suppression personnel.

AFFF Contamination

AFFF contamination can occur through fire-extinguishing foam, spills, and leaks. It is used to extinguish flammable liquid fires and is often used at airports, military bases, and industrial facilities. PFAS can be released into the environment when fire-extinguishing foam is used.

It can also enter the environment through spills and leaks from storage tanks and transportation lines. Once these toxic chemicals enter the environment, they can travel long distances and contaminate groundwater, soil, and surface water. It can also enter the food chain through plants and animals.

AP News reported that the Pentagon indicated that PFAS contamination has affected at least 385 military installations. It is primarily from widely used fire-extinguishing foam during training exercises. The source also reported that as per the EWG, forever chemicals reached 213,000 parts per trillion at the shuttered Wurtsmith Air Force Base.

According to TorHoerman Law, individuals, including firefighters, airport staff, and military firefighting personnel, are susceptible to the exposure. Also, industrial workers and residents living near AFFF-utilizing facilities face potential risks related to this fire-taming foam. Apart from these, those engaged in producing, transporting, and cleaning foam also face an elevated risk of developing cancer.

Health Risks and Cancer

Firefighting foam is a critical tool for firefighters but may pose a serious health risk. PFAS-contained foam can increase the risk of several critical illnesses. Several studies have emphasized the presence of persistent chemicals in firefighting foam, suggesting a potential carcinogenic hazard.

Extended contact with these compounds heightens the likelihood of cancer development. Individuals exposed to this chemical over a long period are at the highest risk. These chemicals can be inhaled, ingested, and absorbed through the skin.

Firefighting foam cancer arises from exposure to toxic chemicals that can contaminate the air, water, and soil. Additionally, individuals may come into contact with these hazardous substances through consumer products containing them. Firefighting foam cancer types encompass kidney, testicular, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, bladder, leukemia, prostate, and liver cancer.

Regulatory and Legal Actions

Regulatory and legal actions are being taken worldwide to address the health risks of firefighting foam. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been proactively addressing this concern by taking substantial measures. These measures include establishing health advisories for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water.

EPA has also designated them as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). Also, the agency is developing comprehensive national guidelines for regulating PFAS discharges from industrial facilities. The EPA is also working with states to develop and implement action plans.

Besides, several states are taking action to regulate forever-chemicals. For example, in 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom approved legislation prohibiting the production, distribution, and utilization of forever chemical-contained fire-extinguishing foam. The law also stipulates guidelines for properly disposing of foams containing these harmful substances. 

In a similar vein, New Jersey has set a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water.

Multiple legal actions have been initiated against manufacturers of firefighting foam containing harmful chemicals. These legal cases claim that the manufacturers were aware of the health hazards but did not adequately inform the public. Through these lawsuits, the victims are demanding compensation for their injuries.

Protecting Against the Hidden Threat

Several key actions and considerations must be embraced to mitigate the health risks associated with fire-extinguishing foam. Firstly, adopting safer formulations is essential to reduce health hazards while maintaining fire-extinguishing efficacy. Comprehensive training for firefighters is crucial to minimize exposure through proper handling, storage, and disposal.

Providing firefighters with state-of-the-art personal protective equipment helps shield them from direct exposure to harmful substances. Regular health screenings, especially for those with a firefighting foam exposure history, enable early issue identification and management.

Implementing these protective measures ensures safer firefighting practices, safeguarding lives and the environment from the hidden threat of firefighting foam.

Community Activism and Grassroots Movements

These movements have also been crucial in pushing for regulatory and legal action to address these risks.

There are many prominent examples of community activism on this issue. These organizations provide support to individuals who have been diagnosed with cancer. They also advocate for policies that will protect from exposure to harmful chemicals.

A significant organization is the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit dedicated to safeguarding human health and the environment through research and advocacy. The EWG has conducted extensive research on the health risks and has been a vocal advocate for regulatory action to ban forever-chemicals.

Collective endeavors are vital in advocating for transparency, accountability, and effective solutions against this contamination and its cancer risk.

Navigating the Path to Safer Firefighting Practices

In our pursuit of safer firefighting practices, the hidden threat of AFFF must not be underestimated. Embracing safer alternatives, reinforcing regulations, and promoting prevention can guide us to a safer and more sustainable future. 

By doing so, we can ensure the well-being of our communities and preserve the environment. The hidden threat can be ragged but requires an unwavering commitment to understanding and addressing it.