It seems counter-intuitive that a product exists that can save lives while harming them at the same time. Unfortunately, this reality is all too true. Many products that utilize the combination of chemicals in order to make them effective, also pose a risk from their byproducts on the surrounding environment.
Obviously, these products are created for a reason. Usually, a great need for a particular product pushes the pro column higher than the con column, out of sheer necessity versus factual evidence. There are many instances in life that choices have to be made weighing the pros against the cons.
While this is a common situation, it doesn’t mean that it cannot have serious and severe consequences. It is hard to imagine that a situation can be that critical that a product is so desperately needed even though it can have detrimental effects on the environment or individuals associated with it. However, this has been found to be the case in many situations spanning many different fields. It has been shown to occur in medicines, building and safety materials, and technological applications.
Even though there are a variety of products out there that do give cause for concern, in this article we are going to focus on a specific widely used safety product. Aqueous film-forming foam, referred to as AFFF, is a firefighting foam that extinguishes fuel fires expeditiously.
The concern arises with AFFF due to its composition that contains fluorine chemicals. These chemicals are called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Also referred to as fluorosurfactants, these fluorochemicals have been linked to human health concerns whether you’ve come into close contact with the chemical or not.
Despite these alarming facts, many firefighting experts, including US military scientists, claim that these fluorosurfactant-containing foams are necessary. Because they are able to extinguish flames more effectively than any other alternatives, they are the barrier between life and loss. As to be expected, the necessity of the product does not negate the fact that it is endangering the lives of those exposed to its use.
- AFFF works quickly
- It is designed to spread out covering the surface of the fuel, depriving the fire of oxygen
- Works on large fires
- Prevents hot fuel from reigniting
- PFAS accumulate and persist in the environment
- Contaminates drinking water
- Can affect environment for hundreds of miles around exposure
- Presence in humans and animals associated with diseases including cancer
There are open cases from firefighters and people claiming they were sick from drinking water believed to be contaminated with these fluorosurfactants. In addition, some states have also filed lawsuits due to the cost they have had to endure from installing water filtration systems to combat these contaminants. Studies have found these lawsuits to have substantial evidence to back their claims. PFAS were found in the drinking water in a large number of military training facilities and civilian airports, according to reports filed by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense.
The environmental concern has brought about some positive regulatory efforts. Last year, the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2018 was signed requiring the FAA to allow airports to use fluorine-free foams by 2021. Also public interest groups encourage lawmakers to reduce or end all use of PFAS in all firefighting foams. However, they are being met with some resistance from some who claim that there is not a suitable alternative.
It is good to know that there is a product out there that can effectively prevent the loss of life and property due to fire. However, what is this safety costing us? Fortunately, there are environmental warriors out there fighting to find a safer and just as effective alternative.