Exploring the Health Hazards of AFFF for Firefighters

Photo of author

By Marilyn Royce

Firefighters are brave heroes who protect lives and property from the dangers of fire. These brave individuals risk their lives to ensure your safety, often facing dangerous and unpredictable situations. However, during their noble duties, firefighters face not only the immediate risks of fire and smoke but also potential hazards from the firefighting tools and chemicals they employ.

One such chemical that recently garnered attention is AFFF, which stands for Aqueous Film-Forming Foam. Firefighters commonly use AFFF to extinguish fires involving flammable liquids, such as jet fuel or gasoline. While it effectively suppresses these fires, concerns have been raised about the potential health hazards of long-term exposure to AFFF.

In this article, we will delve into the health risks that firefighters may face due to its exposure. 

Understanding AFFF and its Composition

According to Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART), AFFF is a foam used to extinguish high-hazard liquid fires. It contains fluorinated surfactants, which are mainly made up of per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

When AFFF is mixed with water and released, it forms a coating that quickly stops the fire by removing its oxygen, cooling it down, and preventing it from reigniting. However, recent studies have raised concerns about the potential health risks of PFAS chemicals found in AFFF.

Due to these concerns, several lawsuits have been filed against manufacturers of AFFF. For instance, the AFFF lawsuit alleges that the manufacturers knew about the potential health risks associated with PFAS chemicals but failed to adequately warn firefighters and other users. These lawsuits seek compensation for individuals who have been affected by its exposure.

According to TruLaw, the foam’s PFAS substances are referred to as “forever chemicals.” Due to their ability to remain in both the environment and human bodies for a long time, it has been found to cause kidney, colon, and bladder cancer and other related health risks.

AFFF lawsuit has, therefore, shed light on the need to better understand the potential health risks involved with the exposure. It is crucial to conduct further research to determine the extent of these risks and take appropriate measures to protect the health and well-being of firefighters who selflessly put their lives on the line to protect others.

Health Hazards of AFFF Exposure

While AFFF is effective in extinguishing fires, the chemicals it contains can be hazardous to human health, raising concerns about potential health risks for firefighters.

One of the main concerns is the accumulation of PFAS in the body over time. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, PFAS can move into the land, water, and air during manufacture and usage. Most PFAS, such as PFOA and PFOS, do not degrade and stay in the environment. 

Therefore, as firefighters are often exposed to AFFF, they have an increased risk of having health problems due to higher levels of PFAS in their system.

Given these health hazards, it is crucial to raise awareness about the potential risks associated with its exposure. By understanding these risks, firefighters and authorities can take necessary precautions, explore safer alternatives, and develop appropriate guidelines to protect the well-being of those who selflessly protect others from the devastating effects of fire.

Respiratory Effects

Exposure to AFFF can have significant respiratory effects on firefighters. When AFFF is used to suppress fires, it generates foam and releases fine particles and chemicals into the air. Firefighters may inhale these particles and substances, leading to respiratory problems.

Studies have shown that long-term exposure to AFFF can contribute to respiratory issues such as coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and asthma-like symptoms. The chemicals present in AFFF may irritate the airways and cause inflammation, leading to breathing difficulties.

Skin and Eye Irritation

Exposure to AFFF can cause skin and eye irritation among firefighters. When AFFF comes into contact with the skin, it can lead to redness, itching, and a burning sensation. It is especially common in areas where the foam remains in prolonged contact with the skin.

Similarly, if AFFF gets into the eyes, it can cause irritation, redness, and discomfort. The chemicals in AFFF can be harsh on sensitive eye tissues, leading to temporary or prolonged discomfort.

Potential Carcinogenic Risks

Exposure to AFFF has raised concerns about potential carcinogenic risks for firefighters. The chemicals such as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been associated with an increased risk of cancers.

Studies have suggested a potential link between long-term exposure to PFAS and the development of kidney, testicular, and other cancers. Firefighters who frequently handle AFFF and are exposed to PFAS may face a higher risk of these malignancies.

Other Health Concerns

In addition to respiratory effects, skin and eye irritation, and potential carcinogenic risks, AFFF exposure may pose other health concerns for firefighters. Some studies have indicated a possible link between its exposure and hormonal disruptions. These disruptions can impact various bodily functions, leading to reproductive disorders, developmental issues, and metabolic imbalances.

Understanding and addressing these potential health concerns are crucial to safeguard the well-being of firefighters. Comprehensive research, regular health monitoring, and implementation of proper safety protocols are essential in minimizing the risks associated with the exposure and promoting the long-term health of these dedicated individuals.

Prevention and Mitigation Strategies

Clean Water Action reports that states are taking the lead in regulating and limiting the use of AFFF. Some states have implemented restrictions on AFFF for numerous non-federally regulated firefighting entities, including banning its use in training exercises.

Additionally, states are following the example set by Washington State in 2018 by making it mandatory to mention the presence of PFAS in firefighting equipment.

It shows us that hope is still there and efforts are being made. Moreover, it is crucial to implement prevention and mitigation strategies to protect firefighters from the health hazards associated with AFFF exposure. 

Awareness and training are effective measures by which firefighters receive complete training on the potential health risks of the exposure. They should be educated about the proper handling, storage, and disposal of AFFF, as well as the importance of using personal protective equipment (PPE) correctly.

Moreover, using safer alternatives of firefighting foams that do not contain PFAS can significantly reduce the health risks associated with AFFF exposure. Research and development efforts should focus on finding effective and environmentally friendly alternatives.

AFFF Exposure Risks Firefighters, Demands Attention

The health hazards associated with Aqueous Film-Forming Foam exposure pose significant concerns for firefighters who selflessly risk their lives to protect others. It is essential to raise awareness among firefighters and the wider community about these risks and take proactive measures to prevent and mitigate their exposure. 

Prioritizing firefighter safety can ensure that these courageous individuals can perform their duties while minimizing the potential long-term health effects of AFFF.