AFFF firefighting foam (aqueous film forming foam), which is mainly used to fight class B fires (fires involving flammable liquids), is currently being phased out and will be banned from 4th July 2025. AFFF is also used to fight and class A fires (flammable solids).
Here we explain why AFF firefighting foam, which was once considered the ‘gold standard’ for fighting fires, is hazardous and what it means for your organisation’s fire safety.
Why is AFFF firefighting foam hazardous?
AFFF contains PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) which belongs to a group of toxic chemicals called PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances). AFFF may also contain other chemicals that belong to this group.
All PFAS are known as ‘forever chemicals’ because they do not easily degrade in nature.
PFAS chemicals quickly dissolve in water and enter the ecosystem through soil, streams, and rivers. This causes environmental damage which can contaminate our drinking water and food supplies.
PFAS have been found to accumulate in the bodies of animals and people, increasing in concentration over time. This can cause a whole host of serious health issues including liver disease, kidney disease, decreased fertility, cardiovascular disorders and certain cancers.
A report by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) states, “there is evidence to suggest exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse health effects in humans (by eating or drinking food or water contaminated by PFAS)”.
Who is most at risk from PFAS?
The level of risk depends on:
- Exposure levels
- Frequency of exposure
- Duration of exposure
- General health.
It is crucial that PFAS exposure is regulated for everyone’s health and particularly for people at higher risk, such as those who are exposed due to their occupation. For interest, the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) considers that 0.1 micrograms of PFAS per litre of drinking water is within the margin of safety.
How are AFFF fire extinguishers being phased out?
In May 2019, PFOA was added to the Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Regulation (Eu) 2019/1021 to restrict its use with a view to prohibition.
Since July 2020, the sale of AFFF fire extinguishers that contain (or may contain) PFOA or PFOA-related chemicals has been prohibited in the UK and use for training purposes is no longer permitted. Existing equipment can only be tested if foam releases are properly contained and disposed of and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is notified.
Until 4th July 2025, any organisation that has existing stocks of AFFF fire extinguishers can continue to use them to fight class B fires, but only if releases are properly contained and disposed of. An organisation still using AFFF firefighting foam today must also notify the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
On 4th July 2025 all use of AFFF fire extinguishers will be banned and any remaining stocks will have to be properly disposed of by an accredited disposal company.
What is a safe alternative to an AFFF extinguisher?
If your organisation currently has an AFFF extinguisher for class A fires you can use a water extinguisher, a water mist extinguisher, a wet chemical extinguisher, or a dry powder extinguisher instead. Please note, a dry powder extinguisher can only be used indoors if a specific health and safety assessment has been carried out to make sure it is safe to use indoors.
Here are four alternatives to AFFF foam for class B fires:
Fluoride-free firefighting foam
Fluorine-free firefighting foam, also known as F3 foam, is a safer and more environmentally friendly alternative to AFFF. It extinguishes flammable liquid fires by forming a protective layer on the fuel surface, preventing the release of flammable vapours and suppressing the fire.
Dry chemical agents
Dry chemical agents are effective for extinguishing class B fires because they interrupt the chemical reaction of the fire and smother the flames. There are various types of dry chemical agents used for class B fires:
- Sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3): Sodium bicarbonate-based dry chemical agents work by releasing carbon dioxide gas, which displaces oxygen and suffocates the fire.
- Potassium bicarbonate (KHCO3): Similar to sodium bicarbonate agents, they release carbon dioxide to inhibit combustion.
- Monoammonium phosphate (NH4H2PO4): Monoammonium phosphate-based agents are versatile and can be used for class B fires. They form a solid barrier over the surface of the flammable liquid, cutting off the fire’s oxygen supply.
- Ammonium phosphate (NH4)3PO4: Ammonium phosphate dry chemical agents work by forming a blanket-like barrier on the fuel surface, creating a barrier between the fuel and the oxygen.
- Potassium carbonate (K2CO3): Potassium carbonate agents are less common but can be used for class B fires. They help to suppress the fire by releasing carbon dioxide and inhibiting combustion.
C6 firefighting foam
C6 firefighting foam contains fluorinated compounds with 6 carbon chains. These compounds reduce the surface tension of water allowing it to spread over the surface of the flammable liquid, forming a stable foam blanket that suppresses the fire.
Like AFFF, C6 firefighting foam contains PFAS chemicals but the chemicals in C6 have a shorter carbon chain than PFOA (which is comprised of 8 carbon chains). Shorter carbon chains break down more easily than longer chains and are therefore thought to be better for the environment and human health.
However, it is important to know that the safety of short-chain PFAS chemicals is under debate and is currently being scrutinised by the EPA ‘with a view to their restriction’.
Water mist extinguishers
Water mist extinguishers can be used to extinguish class A, B and C fires and fires involving electrical equipment. They are environmentally friendly, non-toxic, and easier to clean up than foam extinguishers, reducing the damage caused by firefighting.
Why is AFFF being phased out now?
Scientists and health experts first raised concerns about PFAS exposure decades ago and the environmental impact of ‘forever chemicals’ was raised back in the 1960s by Rachel Carson in her book, ‘Silent Spring’. However, it has taken a long time for the regulation of forever chemicals to catch up.
In 2002, 3M, the leading manufacturer of PFOS (which is a PFAS chemical that was used in AFFF fire extinguishers until 2011) stopped producing the chemical after the health risks became clear. PFOS production was subsequently restricted by law and eventually prohibited.
As a result, PFOS was replaced by another PFAS chemical, PFOA, which now of course is being phased out because it is equally damaging.
So, why is it taking so long to ban AFFF firefighting foam? We can only speculate.
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