Contamination from the Military’s Use of Firefighting Foam

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A great deal of attention is now focused on the use of aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) containing perfluorinated compounds such as perfluoro-octanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluoro-octane sulfonate (PFOS) on all U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and by major airports, refineries, and other areas where potentially catastrophic fuel fires can occur.

Fighting Shipboard Fires

Fires aboard naval vessels have always been a matter of great concern because they may lead to severe damage, including loss of capability, function, and life. Protection against fires and explosions in high-risk areas such as machinery spaces required an effective fire extinguishants. The Navy began requiring its vessels to carry AFFF in 1967 after 134 sailors died and other 161 were seriously injured, in a catastrophic fire aboard the USS Forrestal – the first Atlantic Fleet carrier on Yankee Station. The lead ship of her class of aircraft carriers was sent to provide additional airpower during the Vietnam War, when a power surge caused a Zuni rocket on a F-4B Phantom to fire and strike an external fuel tank, igniting leaking fuel and causing several bombs to explode. This naval disaster prompted the Navy to reconsider its firefighting practices.

The Military’s Toxic Fluorinated Firefighting Foam Disaster

AFFF was an essential firefighting medium used onboard warship and submarines to protect areas vulnerable to hydrocarbon-based flammable and combustible liquid fires (Class B).

Firefighter contamination may have occurred during training foam training exercises, emergencies, or demonstrations such as simulated boat fire or aircraft crash. Firefighters’ skin may be exposed to chemicals via permeation of combustion byproducts through or around personal protective equipment. Additionally, volatile contaminants from impregnated protective clothing can evaporate following a response and be inhaled by firefighters.

The emerging issue with many of these foams is the potential human health risks posed by the inclusion of fluorinated surfactants – the two compounds of PFOA and PFOS mentioned earlier. There are two key areas of concern with AFFF containing these compounds:  human health and environmental impacts. PFOS is classified as a persistent and bioaccumulative organic pollutant, while PFOA is classified as possibly carcinogenic to humans. AFFF enters the environments in multiple ways including through fire or catastrophic events, system discharge, firefighter training and system testing. PFOA and PFOS have been found in drinking water supplies associated with manufacturing location, industrial use or disposal.

PFAS-Laden Foam Still Used in Actual Aviation Fuel Fire Emergencies

The ongoing development of fuel, environmental and personnel contamination issues led EPA to take various actions like imposing restrictions on the use and production of perfluorinated chemicals in order to minimize the potential effects on human health and the environment.

PFOA and PFOS are no longer manufactured in the U.S except for some accepted industrial processes such as in semiconductors, printed circuits, aviation equipment, defense, solar panels, and pesticides. However, AFFF is still used as part of fire suppression systems in actual aviation fuel fire emergencies, although the area is considered a spill site and is cleaned up immediately afterward. Because these contaminants can seep into the ground and water causing health concerns, lawmakers would force military bases to stop using toxic firefighting foam in almost all training activities and ban them altogether over the next decade under recent legislation.

About the author:

Gregory A. Cade is the principal attorney at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C., a reliable law firm focused on toxic exposure cases. With a solid science background, Gregory A. Cade is using his Hygiene degree in helping injured people in occupational and environmental settings. The strength behind his professional success comes from his vast experience, as Gregory worked in the environmental law department for over 25 years.

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