Safe Practices for Firefighters: Reducing PFAS Exposure Risks

Firefighters face the flames to save lives, but their bravery should not be at the expense of their health. PFAS chemicals, particularly those found in AFFF, are used to extinguish fuel fires. Exposure to such chemicals is one of the reasons for cancers such as kidney, testicular, and thyroid cancer. The rise in AFFF firefighting foam lawsuits demonstrates the gravity of the situation.

This article aims to provide our brave firefighters with knowledge and practices to protect themselves from these toxic chemicals.

Understanding PFAS and AFFF

In the high stakes of firefighting, the use of Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF) has been a game changer. This foam is used to extinguish intense fires, especially those with flammable liquids.

AFFF is a firefighting agent. It is designed to combat high-intensity flames, such as those in aviation and military situations. Its unique ability to create a barrier between fuel and oxygen effectively smothers flames and prevents re-ignition.

Yet, the existence of PFAS in such foam has raised serious health and environmental concerns.

Health Risks of Exposure to PFAS

PFAS, also referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ because of their long-term presence in the surroundings, pose significant health risks.

Studies have associated PFAS vulnerability to a range of health concerns, including liver damage, cancer, and immune system disruptions. Firefighters are particularly vulnerable because their occupational exposure to AFFF can result in higher concentrations of PFAS in their bodies.

An Overview of AFFF Litigation and Class Action Suits

The health risks due to PFAS have sparked a wave of AFFF lawsuits. Affected individuals and groups have sued AFFF manufacturers, claiming negligence and failure to warn about the dangers of PFAS. One of the most significant legal actions is the City of Stuart v. Tyco Fire Products.

According to TruLaw, these legal battles are more than just compensation. They also involve holding manufacturers accountable and pushing for safer alternatives.

The Firefighter Cancer Registry Act: Protecting Firefighters

The Firefighter Cancer Registry Act addresses the link between cancer risks and firefighting incidents. This Act establishes a registry, managed by the CDC, to collect health and occupational information from firefighters across the USA.

The Act initiated the National Firefighter Registry (NFR) for Cancer, directed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The NFR operates as a voluntary workplace health surveillance system.

Participation in the NFR is voluntary and open to all U.S. firefighters, regardless of their cancer status, career stage, or type of firefighting performed. By October 2023, over 48,000 firefighters had registered, highlighting the community’s commitment to uncovering and addressing occupational hazards.

The registry’s insights are expected to inform the development of new regulations and safety measures. These could include improvements to personal protective equipment, decontamination procedures, and operational strategies to reduce carcinogen exposure.

The Act’s reauthorization in 2023, which includes increased funding, demonstrates the ongoing commitment to this cause. It ensures that the registry will continue to function and grow. It will provide valuable data to protect firefighters from the dangers they face long after the flames have been extinguished.

Best Practices for Handling AFFF

In response to growing concerns, the National Fire Protection Association and the Environmental Protection Agency have created standards. The regulations or standards are meant to govern the consideration of PFAS-based foams. These include:

  • Dispose of unused AFFF responsibly like landfills, injection wells, treatment facilities, and incinerators.
  • Decontaminate equipment after use, especially when switching to PFAS-free foams.
  • Train firefighters on safety and environmental protocols. This includes wearing proper gear like PPE, gloves, and helmets.
  • Use PFAS-containing AFFF only when necessary.
  • Have materials and a plan ready for containing and cleaning up spills promptly to prevent environmental contamination. This includes absorbent materials, personal protective equipment, and a well-documented response plan.
  • Develop plans for firewater runoff collection.
  • Follow industry standards and manufacturer recommendations for AFFF and equipment.
  • Consider decontaminating fixed installations previously exposed to PFAS-containing AFFF.
  • Consult state and federal laws on PFAS release.
  • Contact environmental companies for cleanup and disposal of leftover AFFF concentrate.

Alternatives to AFFF and Transitioning to PFAS-Free Foams

The campaign for PFAS-free foam alternatives is gaining traction. These fluorine-free options are being developed to provide the same level of fire suppression while avoiding the associated risks.

Over 100 fluorine-free foams are known from 24 producers. Their production has complied with international aviation standards and certifications, like the LASTFIRE, International Civil Aviation Organization Level B, and the International Maritime Organization. Major Australian airports and armed forces in Denmark and Norway have already transitioned to fluorine-free foams.

Health Monitoring and Legal Recourse

Regular health screenings are critical for the early detection of PFAS-related severities. Firefighters who have been exposed to PFAS can seek legal action with help from experienced lawyers and advocacy groups.

To summarize, PFAS exposure can be reduced through increased awareness and proactive measures. As research advances, the primary goal remains to ensure the safety and well-being of firefighters and the communities they protect.

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