Aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) is an extremely effective firefighting foam that is used to fight high-hazard fires involving flammable liquids. Unfortunately, AFFF has been linked to numerous health conditions, including cancer.
AFFF is typically produced when fluorinated surfactants are combined with hydrocarbon foaming agents. These are then combined with water, and the solution that results will have characteristics allowing the resulting aqueous film to spread across a hydrocarbon fuel’s surface.
The foam will put out a fire and form a vapor barrier between atmospheric oxygen and the fuel to prevent the fire from re-igniting. AFFF’s defining feature is forming a film like this.
Classes of Firefighting Foam
Two major firefighting foam classes exist: Class A and Class B. The 1980s saw class A foams developed in order to fight wildfires. Class A foams are also utilized for fighting structure fires.
Class B foams are foams which are used to put out fires caused by combustible and flammable gases and liquids such as tars, petroleum greases, gasoline, oils, alcohols and solvents. Class B foams can be protein foams. Class B foams can also be synthetic foams, such as AFFF or alcohol-resistant aqueous film-forming foam (AR-AFFF).
AFFF contains fluorosurfactants. The active ingredients in fluorosurfactants are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
Perfluoroalkyl substances are fully fluorinated alkane molecules. They consist of a chain of two or more carbon atoms. This chain has a charged functional group attached to it at one end.
Polyfluoroalkyl substances are not fully fluorinated molecules. They consist of a non-fluorine atom, usually oxygen or hydrogen, attached to at least one carbon atom, with at least two or more carbon atoms in the carbon chain being fully fluorinated.
Not all class B foams contain PFAS. Some foams are fluorine-free.
Almost all class B firefighting foam that is in service or in stock in the United States is AR-AFFF or AFFF. All AFFF contains PFAS, including AFFF used in the past and AFFF used today. In stock firefighting foam or new firefighting foam labeled as AR-AFFF or AFFF contains polyfluoroalkyl substances, perfluoroalkyl substances, or both.
What Is AFFF Used for?
AFFF is used for fires involving significant flammable liquid hazards, including in:
- Flammable liquid storage facilities
- Flammable liquid processing facilities
- Chemical plants
- Fire departments
- Firefighting training centers
- Offshore oil platforms
- Oil tankers
- Bulk fuel storage farms
- Oil terminals
- Oil refineries
- Aircraft firefighting operations
- Military facilities
AFFF Health Effects
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), exposure to PFAS may result in:
- Cancers, such as testicular cancer and kidney cancer
- Developmental effects on breastfed infants or fetuses during pregnancy, such as skeletal variations, accelerated puberty, or low birth weight
- Liver damage
- Effects on the immune system, such as effects on immunity and antibody protection
- Thyroid effects
- Cholesterol changes
Unfortunately, a 2015 survey found PFAS in the blood of 97 percent of Americans. Many studies have linked PFAS with adverse health effects, including:
- A 1983 study linked the PFAS perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) with Leydig cell adenomas in rats. Leydig cell adenomas are non-cancerous testicular tumors which can later become cancerous. It is still unknown today how PFOA causes these tumors. Whenever a cancer risk in animals does not have a known mechanism of action, it must be assumed that the same cancer risk may be present in humans.
- A 2011 study linked PFAS exposure to a higher risk of breast cancer.
- In 2012, it was announced that the C8 Science Panel found that PFOA was probably linked to testicular cancer and kidney cancer.
- A 2013 study linked PFOA exposure to a higher risk of developing testicular, ovarian, prostate and kidney cancers, as well as non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
- A 2016 study linked prenatal PFAS exposure with an increased risk of obesity.
- A 2016 study linked PFAS exposure in women to a prolonged time to first pregnancy.
- A 2017 study linked PFAS exposure with a higher risk of developing diabetes.
- A 2018 study linked PFAS with greater weight regain after a diet, especially in women.
- A 2019 study linked PFAS exposure to a higher risk of developing liver cancer.
- A 2020 study linked PFOA exposure with a higher risk of developing kidney cancer.
- A 2020 study found that many PFAS exhibit key characteristics of carcinogens, such as induction of oxidative stress, immunosuppresive characteristics, modulation of receptor-mediated effects, induction of epigenetic alterations, and influencing of cell proliferation.
- A 2022 study found that residents of a town whose water supply was contaminated with PFAS had a significantly higher risk of developing thyroid cancer, bladder cancer, esophageal cancer and mesothelioma compared to national averages, and had a significantly higher risk of developing all-cause cancer, thyroid cancer, colon cancer and prostate cancer compared to similarly exposed New England communities.
PFOA is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a possible human carcinogen. The EPA says PFOA and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) might be linked to cancer.
Numerous lawsuits have been filed across the country accusing AFFF manufacturers of knowing that the PFAS in their products could cause cancer but failing to warn the public about this risk.
Call us today at 800-718-4658 or text us from this page for a free consultation if you or a loved one developed cancer after being exposed to AFFF. You may be eligible for financial compensation in an AFFF lawsuit against an AFFF manufacturer. Our AFFF lawyers don’t charge a fee to represent you until and unless we win your case, so you have nothing to lose by contacting us.
AFFF and the Environment
PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down. They are extremely stable molecules that persist indefinitely, and this lets them travel through the soil into groundwater where they can persist for decades.
Many lawsuits have been filed accusing AFFF manufacturers such as 3M and Dupont of knowing that PFAS posed significant environmental and health risks and failing to warn about these risks.
By the late 1960s, 3M and Dupont’s testing found that PFAS did not degrade or break down after being used, but instead would persist in the environment and eventually reach water supplies. This testing also found that PFAS were toxic and could accumulate in humans.
Further testing by Dupont and 3M in the 1970s found that PFAS affected a wide portion of the population who had been exposed to PFAS via water or soil contamination. Since the chemicals don’t degrade in the body, each exposure accumulated in the human body.
Lawsuits allege that AFFF manufacturers knew by the late 1990s that PFAS were an “extreme biohazard,” since they don’t break down or degrade in soil or water, allowing PFAS to remain for years or even decades, travel through soil, water, and air once introduced into the environment, be absorbed into the human body through inhalation, dermal exposure or consumption, and build up in the human body with every exposure.
As of October 2021, there were 2,854 locations in the United States known to be contaminated by PFAS, according to the Environmental Working Group.
Protecting Yourself From AFFF Exposure
Those who work in departments that use AFFF should follow the following practices to keep themselves safe from AFFF exposure:
- Manage and contain AFFF and water runoff
- Replace older stocks of AFFF with foam solutions that are fluorine-free
- Wear a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and personal protective equipment (PPE) whenever you handle AFFF
- Properly bag and remove contaminated PPE before transporting it
- Clean contaminated SCBA and PPE before it is used again
- Use cleaning wipes on your hands, neck, and face immediately after exposure to AFFF
- Shower within an hour of returning home or to the station
If you believe you have been exposed to AFFF, you should visit your occupational healthcare provider and document your exposure to PFAS.
How Do I Know if the AFFF I Have Contains PFAS?
It may be difficult to tell if the AFFF you possess has PFAS in it. PFAS aren’t required to be reported on safety data sheets, and they might not be listed under active ingredients. One way you can tell if a foam may contain PFAS is if it mentions the prefix “fluoro,” such as fluorosurfactant or fluoroprotein, or if it mentions C6.
However, not every fluorinated surfactant is made of PFAS. You should note the manufacturer and brand of the foam and write the manufacturer to ask if PFAS is used in its production, and ask for the product’s safety data sheet. Make it clear that you are referring to the entire PFAS family, not just a single compound such as PFOA, and make sure to review the safety data sheet.
Types of Class B Firefighting Foams
Legacy PFOS AFFF
Legacy PFOS AFFF foams were made in the United States exclusively by 3M from the late 1960s until 2002, sold under the brand name “Lightwater.” Lightwater contains PFOS, as well as precursors that can break down in the environment to PFOS, as well as shorter chain PFSAs like PFHxS.
Some PFSAs, like PFHxS, are persistent in the environment. Older Legacy PFOS AFFF might also contain PFOA and fluorinated precursors. These precursors may break down in the environment to PFOA as well as other perfluoroalkyl carboxylates.
Legacy Fluorotelomer AFFF
These foams contain some long-chain PFAS and were made and sold in the United States from the 1970s until 2016. These foams encompass every AFFF brand except Lightwater. These foams are not made with PFOA. However, they contain polyfluorinated precursors which can break down into PFOA in the environment.
These foams might contain trace amounts of PFOA as a manufacturing process byproduct. These foams have contained 50 to 98 percent short-chain PFAS, with the rest as long-chain PFAS. The long-chain PFAS in these foams may break down in the environment to PFOA.
Modern Fluorotelomer AFFF
These foams contain almost exclusively short-chain PFAS, and most AFFF makers have transitioned to producing these in response to prodding by the EPA. Short-chain PFAS do not contain or break down into the environment to PFOS or PFOA. They are considered less toxic than long-chain PFAS and are considered to have significantly reduced bioaccumulation potential than long-chain PFAS.
These foams may contain trace amounts of PFOA and PFOA precursors as manufacturing process byproducts. While these foams seem to be less bioaccumulative, they still persist in the environment as long as long-chain PFAS. Little information is available as to the toxicity of these PFAS.
States Are Responding to Risk of AFFF
Over a dozen states have banned AFFF containing PFAS, and many states have passed regulations on the disposal, use, and production of AFFF. The regulations vary in how restrictive they are. Some states have banned AFFF in military and fire training and only allow AFFF to be used to fight active fires.
States such as Vermont and Connecticut have created take-back programs to encourage people to safely dispose of AFFF. Some regions which haven’t enacted AFFF bans have implemented stricter reporting requirements to make sure the states know how and when AFFF is used.
New York State Attorney General Letitia James announced plans to sue multiple AFFF companies in 2019, and the following year, Michigan brought lawsuits against 33 AFFF companies. The lawsuits claimed that AFFF manufacturers supplied AFFF despite knowing it could contaminate the environment and cause injury to people.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser sued 15 AFFF companies in February, claiming they knew or should have known that AFFF exposure can be harmful. Weiser said that PFAS had damaged Colorado’s natural resources and public health. The lawsuit seeks to force AFFF manufacturers to pay for all costs of cleaning up sites contaminated by AFFF.
North Carolina sued 14 AFFF manufacturers in late 2021, seeking to force manufacturers to pay for PFAS cleanup at a firefighting training site, air bases, and an airport.