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Firefighters Beware: AFFF May Contain Cancer-Causing PFAS
If you work on or live near military installations in the US, a military base, a fire training facility or an airport, you may have been exposed to dangerous PFAS over time. Aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, is often used to suppress fires from spilled fuel or other gas. Some of the chemicals that make it so effective in these scenarios also make it highly toxic to humans.
Studies have shown that the man-made chemical compounds in AFFF soak into our soil and water, endangering not only those who work directly with the substance but also those who live near high-use areas.
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What You Should Know About the Dangers of AFFF
Groundwater contamination is a public health emergency, but unfortunately, the environment is much easier to pollute than to clean up. Some harmful chemicals persist for years or even centuries without degrading.
Spreading Dangerous Chemicals Far and Wide
What exactly in AFFF puts humans in such danger? Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, have been proven toxic to both humans and animals. You may be familiar with some of these chemicals already.
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is used to make products that repel water, oil, and fire. Plastic and cardboard packaging may have PFOA, a discovery that recently prompted the creation of safer storage materials. Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) is likewise used in a variety of products, including paints, varnishes, waxes, cleaners, and stain repellants. Both captured national attention when scientists learned the extent of the danger long-term exposure could cause.
PFAS Molecules Cause Many Health Hazards
Both for people exposed to these chemicals on the job and those who drink contaminated groundwater, PFAS molecules can have noticeable and serious negative health effects. One firefighter recalled experiencing chemical burns on his face after using AFFF. He ended up taking medical leave from his job to seek treatment.
Looking at Long-Term Effects of AFFF
Though acute chemical damage is a serious worry on its own, it’s only part of the story when it comes to PFAS molecules. These compounds have been linked to a wide range of medical problems including:
- Kidney cancer
- Kidney disease
- Liver disease
- Testicular cancer
- Ulcerative colitis (an inflammatory bowel disease)
- Thyroid disease, including Hypothyroidism
- Thyroid cancer
PFAS molecules might also affect reproductive organs and pregnancy. Scientists believe they may cause:
- Difficulty conceiving
- Pregnancy-induced hypertension/preeclampsia
- Lower infant birth weight and size
Not all of these connections have been solidly proven. There is limited evidence due only to limited studies, and its possible further research will uncover more ailments caused by PFAS exposure. Scientists continue to track data and note health issues such as endometriosis where women also have elevated levels of PFNA, PFOA, and PFOS.
Am I Likely to Get Sick?
Because the issue is fairly new, scientists are still determining the risk factors for PFAS-related illness. They believe the amount of danger a person is in depends on:
- Exposure levels
- Frequency of exposure
- Duration of exposure
Military personnel, civilian firefighters, airport firefighters, and those who work on offshore platforms are known to have worked where AFFF was common. The risk is greater than those who simply drank the PFAS in groundwater because of prolonged exposure. However, if you are experiencing AFFF exposure symptoms and believe you’re at risk for PFAS-related illness due to AFFF exposure, you should speak with a doctor and consult a lawyer to know your legal rights.
Frequently Asked Questions: AFFFs
What Type of Fire is AFFF Used On?
AFFF is designed to form a film over petroleum-based fuels, blocking oxygen access to quickly extinguish fires. It’s used at airports, military bases, oil rigs, gas stations, shore facilities, ships, and other places where fire is likely to be caused by a liquid-fuel-based accelerant.
Is AFFF Dangerous?
A single exposure to AFFF isn’t likely to have any hazardous health effects. The danger of AFFF (particularly, the danger of PFAS and PFOS) lies in chronic, long-term exposure. The more times you’re exposed to AFFF, the more PFAS wind up in your bloodstream; and because your body can’t excrete PFAS in the same way as other toxic substances, frequent exposure over a long period of time can lead to a dangerous blood level of PFAS.
What Substances in AFFF Have Been Detected in Groundwater?
Not only can AFFF pose hazards to those who are directly exposed through their jobs, but the PFOS and PFAS used in AFFF can have an environmental impact as well if it leaches into groundwater. The contaminated water may be harmful to those who live nearby. PFAS can also be hazardous to animals. If PFAS are discharged near an aquifer, they can wind up in the water supply, potentially increasing the cancer risk for everyone in the area.
Which PFAS are in AFFF?
Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) is a type of PFAS that is found in older AFFF products, while perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is a byproduct that is created during the manufacturing of AFFF. Because AFFF is manufactured by several companies, each of these manufacturing processes can create additional PFAS that are unique to that brand.