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Types of fire extinguished with AFFF

The formula of the fire suppressant aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, as we know it today, was devised by the U.S. Navy and the 3M Company after a fire aboard the USS Forrestal off the coast of Vietnam caused 134 sailors to die.

Ever since, the firefighting foam has been widely used by civilian and military firefighters to put out fires caused by combustible and flammable liquids and gases.

AFFF is created by mixing foaming agents with fluorinated surfactants, which are usually perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Also known as PFAS or "forever chemicals", these chemicals pose a major health threat to firefighters who use AFFF regularly, as exposure can result in many terrible diseases, including several different cancers. The firefighting foam has been used at over 700 military bases around the country to extinguish emergency blazes and, more often, to douse fires purposefully set to prepare firefighters for those emergencies.

AFFF is one of the major sources of PFAS contamination. Unlike other products, it is meant to be sprayed into the environment, which means torrents of PFAS-containing foam flushed into streams and rivers and off ship decks into the ocean. The Pentagon spent over $1.1 billion by 2020 to treat contaminated water, offer bottled water to service members, and investigate pollution at 700 military bases with AFFF contamination. "Future PFAS costs will total at least $2.1 billion," the Government Accountability Office said in a report.

AFFF is often used in shipboard and shore facility fire suppression systems, fire fighting vehicles, and fire training facilities. The fire suppressant is very effective in putting out Class B fires, which can stem from the following liquids and gases:

  • gasoline
  • alcohol
  • lacquers
  • jet fuel
  • petroleum
  • oil-based paints
  • greases
  • tars
  • oils
  • solvents
  • ether
  • paraffin

For instance, propane, gasoline, natural gas, and kerosene fires are types of Class B fires. Using lighter fluid on a charcoal grill creates a Class B fire. The active ingredient in AFFF is PFAS, as the fire suppressant contains between 50% and 98% "forever chemicals". When combined with water and discharged, the foam forms an aqueous film that rapidly cuts off the oxygen to the fire, cools it, extinguishes the fire, and prevents it from relighting.

It may not be easy to tell if the AFFF a firefighter uses contains PFAS, as these highly toxic chemicals are not required to be reported on any safety data sheets. Despite mounting evidence supporting the association between exposure to "forever chemicals" and serious diseases, PFAS are not currently considered hazardous substances. To make it even more challenging to find out whether AFFF has PFAS, the chemicals may not even be listed under any active ingredients list either. Still, a good indicator that the firefighting foam contains PFAS is if it mentions the following on the label:

  • fluorosurfactant
  • fluoroprotein
  • C6
  • the use of "fluoro"

A glimmer of hope for firefighters is a recent announcement by the Pentagon, according to which the use of AFFF will be completely phased out by the end of 2024 within the military. It is a radical change for the U.S. military, which since the Vietnam War has relied on PFAS-containing AFFF to fight its toughest fires. Furthermore, the process of switching to a safe and effective AFFF replacement will cascade through the nation's civilian airports, oil refineries, fire departments, and chemical manufacturers. "We are staring at the tidal wave of foam transition," said Corey Theriault, principal water engineer with Arcadis NV, which has assisted U.S. and international public and private sectors in switching to PFAS-free firefighting foams.

Quality assistance for civilian and military firefighters injured by AFFF exposure

Atraxia Law has over 35 years of experience in evaluating toxic exposure claims. If you are or were a civilian or military firefighter who used AFFF and now struggle with a disease related to PFAS exposure, do not hesitate to contact our team of experts to have your case assessed. The process is simple and will require minimal involvement on your part, as we are aware that most toxic exposure victims are in a lot of physical and emotional distress.