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Questioning the safety of new age foams and preventing a second crisis
deck fire
Monroe firefighters use foam to put out a deck fire at a house in the 800 block of 25th Street that was reported by a passerby.

Ever since the 1970s, across Wisconsin and the rest of the U.S., Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF) has been the gold standard for fire suppression. Virtually all fire departments relied on this tool to extinguish flammable liquid fires in emergency situations. Both rural and urban communities have experienced the benefits of the foam’s fast-acting properties, which indeed saved lives. 

However, we are now viewing the historical effectiveness of AFFF in a different light. AFFF contains chemicals that have been recognized as unbreakable and highly hazardous. Growing concerns have led decision-makers to seek viable alternatives, replacing old foams with more environmentally-friendly and less toxic formulations. Some substitutes with very attractive features are already on the market. Apparently free of persistent pollutants, these new-age foams are touted as safe and biodegradable. They represent a new approach distinct from traditional AFFF formulations.

But regardless of our enthusiasm, let’s stay mindful of the fact that the old formulations were also considered safe before their environmental effects became apparent. Today, every state is facing some challenges in mitigating the health and environmental harm caused by extensive AFFF use. 

In order to address these challenges, states are striving to meet regulatory demands and government bodies need to adapt to the rapid technological development of these foams. From policymakers to firefighters, it is crucial to approach the adoption of alternatives objectively rather than as a compromise for rapid adaptation. 

In Wisconsin, the use of firefighting foam with intentionally added PFAS is prohibited for training purposes, but it is still allowed when it’s used as part of an emergency firefighting or fire prevention operation. Several fire departments have adopted fluorine-free foams. 

Understanding the appeal of new age foams

Unlike AFFF formulations, fluorine-free foams (FFF or F3) are free of PFAS, which makes them more likely to be biodegradable. They seem to be the most straightforward, least questionable solution. Currently, the sole requirement for the health and environmental hazards of AFFFs is the absence of fluorine or PFAS content, which is something worthy to reflect upon for future safety considerations such as long-term effects, environmental impact, or toxic compounds that we may overlook while focusing solely on PFAS content.

Many of the new foams are novel formulations, so their toxicity is more difficult to predict. It is typical for there to be gaps in our practice and knowledge of new chemical compositions, but this lack of understanding should encourage us to conduct thorough research before adopting new foams.

As emerging products, novel formulations can enter the market with limited regulatory oversight. A recent literature revealed between 60 and 70 commercially available products that were being marketed as ‘environmentally friendly’ AFFF alternatives, but half of them lacked legitimate approvals and were marketed strictly on informal testing methods. 

We need standardized approaches for evaluating the environmental safety and potential health impacts of the next-generation foams based on factors such as toxicity, exposure, or biodegradability. 

Removing PFAS from products is a crucial step, but it will not resolve every potential health issue and environmental hazard. Research into AFFFs is a developing field; we should remain vigilant and prevent a second crisis. 

— Jonathan Sharp is a Chief Financial Officer responsible for case evaluation, financial analysis, and assets management at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. The law firm headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, assists victims of toxic exposure, predominantly civilian and military