Firefighters have been using firefighting hydrocarbon foams for decades to suppress fires. These foams are lauded for their ability to put out aggressive fires easily by separating the fire from the fuel’s surface.
But concerns regarding the firefighting foam concentrate are also raised from time to time. During such grave discussions, the need for non-toxic fire-suppressing foaming agents is expressed. It is only recently that different national and state governments are taking drastic measures to limit and gradually stop the use of certain firefighting foams.
In fact, the government of Europe has already declared that all firefighting foams containing perfluorooctane acids (PFOAs) must be completely banned by July 2025. What made the EU government take such a huge leap, and how will it affect the firefighting industry? This article talks all about it.
Types of Firefighting Foams
Though all firefighting foams look more or less similar on the surface, they are vastly different. Yes, there are different types of firefighting foams useful for extinguishing different kinds of fires. These include –
1. Class A Foams
Class A firefighting foams are used to extinguish fires caught on Class A materials, such as wood, brush, and paper. They were originally introduced to put out wildfires but are now used to suppress structural fires.
Class A foams are generally non-toxic, non-corrosive, and biodegradable.
2. Class B Foams
The second class or Class B firefighting foams are exclusively designed to put out fires caught on Class B materials like oil, jet fuel, etc., which means these foaming agents are effective for liquid fires. They may be composed of natural protein or synthetic foams.
Synthetic foams are also known as Aqueous Film Forming (AFF) foams which contain Perfluorooctane acids (PFOAs) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acids (PFOs). These foams have raised health concerns.
3. Low-Expansion Foams
Low-expansion firefighting foams are those foams whose expansion rate is below 20. They have low viscosity, which makes them highly mobile. This means low-expansion foams can cover large distances within a short span.
AFF foams are a type of low-expansion firefighting foam.
4. Alcohol-Resistant Foams
Also known as alcohol-resistant aqueous film-forming foams (AR-AFFF), these are used to tackle large-scale fires caught on Class B materials. The main purpose of this foam is to trap the alcohol content in the inflammable material.
The protective film created between the foaming agent and the burning material prevents the alcohol from breaking down the foam.
5. High-Expansion Foams
High-expansion foams are those with a high expansion rate. This makes them suitable for small or enclosed areas where quick action is needed to save lives.
As such, these foaming agents are suitable for fires caught in warehouses, buildings, processing areas, and more.
6. Medium-Expansion Foams
Medium-expansion foams have a moderate expansion rate, ranging between 20 and 100. This makes these foaming agents suitable for shallow areas.
Examples of top materials these foams can tackle include rubber, plastic, and small-scale liquid fires.
‘Forever Chemicals:’ What are They and Why?
Perfluorooctane acids or PFOAs are highly regulated chemicals, as per the US Environmental Protection Agency. This is because of their toxic nature, especially with prolonged exposure.
Two research experts from Harvard University studied the nature of these Class B foaming agents. According to them, PFOAs can be called the ‘forever chemicals’ because they do not naturally degrade in the environment.
Similarly, the human body has no mechanism to break down these chemicals. Meaning, they will sit inside the soil or a person’s body for centuries without breaking down at all. Furthermore, the experts discovered that these foaming agents were highly resistant to heat, water, and grease.
That’s a nerve-wracking discovery.
Reasons behind Banning Certain Firefighting Foams
The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has long known the health risks associated with prolonged exposure to Class B firefighting foaming agents that contain PFOAs. Its Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has found the following health risks associated with the foams –
- High levels of blood cholesterols
- Preeclampsia among pregnant mothers
- Abnormally high blood pressure
- Unfavorable changes in the immune system
- Reduced newborn birth weight
- High risk of certain cancers
The association between AFF foams and cancers has been further confirmed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) which recognizes these substances to be known carcinogenic. To solidify all speculations, several firefighters, first responders, and airport personnel have lodged a firefighting foam lawsuit against chemical manufacturers.
Most of these people have been exposed to foam toxicity for years. According to TorHoerman Law attorneys, the common injuries associated with this lawsuit include cancers of the kidneys, pancreas, lungs, prostate, liver, breast, and colorectal. The major threat is that PFOAs remain in the human blood indefinitely, so once a person is affected, they will develop some or the other abnormality.
Given the toxic and eternal nature of these hydrocarbons, governments across the world are rigorously taking measures to curb usage or ban them altogether.
Legislations Already in Place Against PFAs
While the American government is working alongside the EPA to enforce standard national rules or bans on the usage of AFF foaming agents, state governments have already introduced some measures, including –
- The state government of California has announced that PFOAs in foaming agents must be totally banned by 2028.
- The state of Connecticut is banning all consumer packaging containing PFOAs from 2024 onwards.
- Michigan has published new guidelines where AFFs can be used only under dire circumstances, such as aviation accidents, hydrocarbon fires, and alcohol-related fires.
- States like Minnesota and New Mexico are also about to pass similar bills in the near future.
Following a risk assessment by the Federal government, the nation of Canada recently announced that it would soon implement measures to completely ban Class B foaming agents in the firefighting, cosmetics, and food packaging industries.
As for Europe, the European Chemicals Agency (ECA) has proposed the restriction of PFOAs use. The final decision rests upon the scientific committees for Socio-Economic Analysis and Risk Assessment.
Phasing out to a Total Ban
Just like California and Canada, Europe is expected to follow suit. As of January 2023, the use of AFFs is restricted to cases where the foam is not contained after the fire is put out.
Moreover, the current stocks of AFFs are solely reserved for Class B fires. The country has already placed a total ban on the use of PFOAs for training purposes, and testing of AFF systems is prohibited with the condition that the emissions are properly contained.
But the government has decided to completely ban the usage of PFOAs in firefighting foaming agents starting July 2025. What held up the banning for this long? The answer to that is unclear, but speculations circulate that chemical manufacturers may have prioritized profits over public health.
Such radical measures on the part of different national and state governments can be a challenging adjustment for the firefighting industry. Firefighting companies will need to switch to fluorine-free foaming agents or other compounds with shorter chains.
These changes are most required for aviation operations, chemical plants, military facilities, oil refineries, etc. The main question is whether fluorine-free foams (F3) are a good alternative to hydrocarbons. That will largely depend upon system upgrades, which require risk assessments.
Facility engineers can best determine this answer after asking questions like – is a fluorine-free alternative suitable for the facility? Could any other extinguishing agent work better? How big is the risk of fire? Can new systems be installed without discarding old ones to avoid any lapse in protection?
The transition will not be an easy one, but it is ultimately about the health of firefighters, first responders, and the environment as a whole.
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