PFAS: what they are, why they’re a concern and what we should do
What are PFAS and why are they relevant to firefighters?
PFAS, more formally known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of man-made chemicals that are used in a variety of industries. These chemicals are very persistent – meaning they can accumulate and can’t be broken down – and there’s evidence that they’re harmful to human health.
PFAS are the active ingredient in fluorosurfactants – and most Class B foams are fluorine based. Simply put: PFAS are an active ingredient in most Class B firefighting foams.
What are the health risks of PFAS?
According the IAFC, excessive exposure to PFAS can impact:
- The immune system
- Cancer rates
- Thyroid hormone dysfunction
- Hormone production and regulation
- Cholesterol levels
While there hasn’t been in-depth research related to the human health effects of foams containing PFAS, departments should be aware of the potential health threats that these chemicals bring to the places they’re being released within their communities and while stored in their facilities.
What should we do?
To help you mitigate the exposures to your community members and responders, start by identifying the type of Class B foams you use and whether or not they contain PFAS. Fluorine-free Class B foams do not contain PFAS – however aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) and alcohol-resistant aqueous film-forming foams (AR-AFFF) do contain PFAS.
Next, develop and implement SOPs/SOGs for the storage, use and disposal of fighting foam.
Firefighting foam SOPs should address:
- Foam selection – consider alternatives that do not contain PFAS
- Storage – follow manufacturer guidelines and develop plans for uncontrolled releases
- Use – evaluate your need for Class B foams, provide disposal, containment and treatment solutions, keep records of when/where the foam is used and train your members on best practices
- Disposal – dispose of foam as indicated in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and follow any state or local laws
- Personal protective equipment – wear the proper PPE when handling PFAS
For more information and a printable technical bulletin, visit Safety Central on vfis.com.
Scott Harkins, Risk Control
Scott was a fire chief and EMT who has always been obsessed with peanut butter and sweets (especially Reese’s). He is a mystery novel enthusiast who enjoys playing golf and traveling, although he is good at traveling and not so good at golf.
Firefighter training resources and SOGs for respiratory protection including proper use and fit-testing of self-contained breathing apparatus.