Published On: Tue, Dec 12th, 2023

Firefighters Facing Cancer and AFFF Foam Controversy: A Closer Look

A troubling concern has emerged in the realm of firefighting, where bravery and resilience are constants. It casts a shadow over the brave men and women who stand on the frontlines of emergency response. Once celebrated for its effectiveness in suppressing hazardous fires, it is now entangled in controversy. 

Firefighters are confronting a disturbing reality – an increased incidence of cancer linked to Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF) exposure.

In this article, we will discover the layers of the complex narrative, explore the historical significance of AFFF, and decode its chemical composition. We aim to highlight the impact of the AFFF foam alarm on the well-being of those who protect and serve.

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photo/ pixabay user succo

Decoding AFFF Foam

AFFF is engineered with a combination of water, fluoro-surfactants, and hydrocarbon-based surfactants. This unique formulation forms a thin film over flammable liquids, suppressing fires by preventing fuel vapor release. While well-documented for its effectiveness in fire scenarios, recent concerns have arisen about potential health risks linked to its chemical components.

Widely employed since the 1960s, AFFF has been a staple in combatting flammable liquid fires, from industrial incidents to aviation emergencies. Its versatility has made it a crucial tool for firefighters, but the growing body of research now prompts a reevaluation of its long-term implications.

Recent studies have spotlighted the chemical ingredients within AFFF, particularly per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). As per Z2Data, per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), commonly known as “forever chemicals,” have found application in a wide array of products, ranging from raincoats to electronics, including AFFF.

Notably, these persistent compounds have astounding longevity, with many boasting half-lives exceeding 1,000 years in soil and over 40 years in water. Half-life is the time required for a specific chemical to decrease by 50% in a given medium. What raises further concern is the gradual decline of PFAS levels within the human body, taking approximately four years for their concentrations to halve.

This prolonged presence in both environmental and biological settings underscores the severity of the issue. PFAS, with their enduring nature, pose a significant risk upon contact with human exposure. The protracted period of their existence in the human body intensifies the potential for adverse health consequences, including cancer.

The Silent Threat: Firefighters Battling Cancer

Amid the roar of flames and the heroism on the frontlines, a silent threat haunts the essence of firefighting valor. Recent federal studies have unfurled a chilling revelation. They establish a direct association between PFOS, a PFAS chemical, and the prevalence of testicular cancer among military personnel. This discovery sends shockwaves through the firefighting community, amplifying the urgency of the “AFFF Alarm.”

A study published by Environmental Health Perspectives has established a stark link between PFOS levels found in the blood of thousands of military personnel. This association is particularly notable among those serving as firefighters. The study reveals an increased incidence of testicular cancer associated with elevated PFOS levels among this demographic.

Researchers from the National Cancer Institute and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences conducted the study using banked blood from Air-force servicemen. The findings present compelling evidence, revealing elevated levels of PFAS in the bloodstreams of airmen who served as firefighters. There is weaker yet notable evidence for those residing on installations where drinking water contained high PFAS levels.

Notably, among the airmen diagnosed with testicular cancer, higher serum levels of PFOS were observed compared to those without cancer. This revelation highlights the insidious nature of PFAS exposure and underscores the vulnerability of those bravely risking their lives in firefighting roles.

Regulatory Responses and Industry Impact

Governmental agencies, including the EPA and the OSHA, are reevaluating and strengthening regulations related to using AFFF. These measures aim to curtail environmental contamination and reduce the health risks associated with PFAS exposure.

Firefighting protocols are undergoing significant transformations in response to the emerging health concerns linked to AFFF. Fire departments across the globe are reassessing their practices, exploring alternative firefighting agents, and implementing updated safety protocols to mitigate risks for their personnel.

The controversy has spilled into the legal arena, with lawsuits emerging against manufacturers of AFFF and its chemical components. Legal actions seek accountability for the health consequences faced by firefighters. Simultaneously, regulatory bodies scrutinize the industry’s adherence to safety standards, catalyzing changes in firefighting practices.

Firefighter Advocacy, Support, and Awareness

Firefighters are at the forefront of grassroots initiatives, striving to raise awareness about the hazards linked to AFFF exposure. Support networks are emerging to provide resources for those facing health challenges resulting from their courageous service. These initiatives underscore the resilience and unity within the firefighting community.

In response to the health concerns surrounding AFFF, firefighters are actively participating in lawsuits against manufacturers and distributors of AFFF. These legal actions seek accountability for the adverse health effects attributed to PFAS exposure. The AFFF lawsuit, currently ongoing, has gained momentum, with victims filing from all 50 states.

The AFFF lawsuit alleges that individuals, particularly firefighters and military personnel, have suffered adverse health effects due to exposure to AFFF-containing PFAS. Plaintiffs allege that AFFF manufacturers knew of PFAS health risks but neglected to warn or protect individuals sufficiently. It led to increased rates of cancer and other health conditions among those exposed.

The recent AFFF lawsuit update underscores the ongoing nature of legal proceedings. More than 6,400 AFFF lawsuits have been centralized in the US District Court for the District of South Carolina. The scale of the lawsuits reflects the widespread impact and the urgency for legal redress.

TorHoerman Law further states that municipalities such as Myrtle Beach, Georgetown, and North Myrtle Beach are making pivotal decisions. They are facing a $10.3 billion settlement related to PFAS contamination. Concerns about the equitable distribution of funds among various sources are prompting some municipalities to opt out of the settlement. They worry that their acceptance of settlements could potentially limit the scope of future claims based on new findings.

Research Frontiers and Technological Innovations

The scientific community is actively engaged in ongoing research endeavors to delve deeper into the nuanced health effects of AFFF exposure. These studies aim to provide a comprehensive understanding of the risks associated with PFAS and inform future firefighting strategies.

Technological advancements are at the forefront of the quest for safer firefighting practices. Innovators are exploring alternatives to AFFF that maintain effectiveness in suppressing hazardous fires while minimizing health and environmental risks. From novel foam formulations to advanced application methods, these innovations seek to redefine the landscape of firefighting.

In January 2023, the EPA reported a new military specification (MIL-PRF-32725) for fluorine-free foam, meeting Congressional mandates for the US Department of Defense. This article critically analyzes the current landscape of fluorine-free options, examining their performance, cost, and regulatory implications.

The nuanced discussion explores the challenges and opportunities associated with these alternatives, revealing that the transition to fluorine-free replacements is intricate. It requires thoughtful consideration of various factors. 

Despite the complexity, this ongoing research offers valuable insights for future endeavors in AFFF alternatives. It contributes to the advancement of safer and more sustainable fire suppression systems.

Future Horizons: Navigating the Path Forward

The path forward necessitates a steadfast commitment to advocating for the well-being of firefighters. The firefighting community, alongside researchers, policymakers, and advocacy groups, plays a crucial role. They ensure that advancements in firefighting practices prioritize the health and safety of those who courageously confront hazardous situations.

Collaboration remains key to navigating the complexities of the future. A united front can be formed by fostering partnerships between researchers, industry stakeholders, and firefighting professionals. It can help to address challenges, share insights, and collectively work towards a safer and more sustainable future for firefighting.

Author: Daniel Washington

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