On Jan. 1, 1994, provisions of the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement intended to protect the ozone layer, banned the domestic production of halons. One of the most effective firefighting agents known to humanity found itself condemned to death with no chance of a reprieve.
Halon continues to play an important role in fire protection today. We nurse stockpiles of it to keep our automatic systems in aircraft and electronic centers fully pressurized. Why? Because halon extinguishes in minimal time, is non-corrosive and relatively non-toxic to humans. Nothing better has been found to replace it.
Fast forward to the present. Long range environmental concerns threaten to torpedo the use of fluorinated surfactants in Class B firefighting foam. However, testing to date still finds fluorinated foams vastly superior to non-fluorinated substitutes. Unlike halon, there is no hope of squirreling away enough of the good stuff to last the decades it may take to find something truly equivalent.
In this issue of Industrial Fire World the beginnings of a resistance movement on this issue can be detected. Unlike halon, firefighters are not blindly accepting what is being thrust on them. Those who recognize the indispensable merits of fluorine in firefighting foam are steadfastly stating on the record that the alternatives will not get the job done, period.
No, this does not mean the fire service is “going to the mattresses” in some fluorine foam crusade. Inflexibility only breeds more inflexibility. Cooler heads propose a reasonable compromise to make fluorinated firefighting foam as environmentally safe as possible while keeping it in the firefighters’ toolbox.
Sacrificing two carbon atoms for each hydrocarbon surfactant molecule is all it takes. A category of man-made chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) is essential in making fluorinated surfactants. Unfortunately, two PFAS chemicals – perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) can accumulate and remain in the human body.
To deal with the issue formulators have switched to a hydrocarbon surfactant molecule with a perfluorinated tail only six carbon atoms long. Known as C6 chemistry, it is not bio accumulative and toxicity is greatly reduced. Improved application techniques and runoff recovery could significantly reduce the amount of PFAS that finds its way into the soil.
Environmentalists would have to accept that some small degree of ground contamination is inevitable but can be held to a minimum. The hit for firefighters and their employers is that the new C6 foam products are more difficult to make and, therefore, more expensive.
For both sides, the “win-win” is that the new C6 chemistry is every bit as effective as previous fluorinated firefighting foam, meaning fires can still be quickly dealt with, reducing all types of potential pollution while keeping the firefighters safe in their profession.
That hazard to human life is the factor that environmentalist need to consider more closely. Not just possible, potential, attainable hazards in generations to come but the clear and present danger of putting humans near a man-made inferno that any responsible segment of society would want contained and curtailed as soon as possible.
One incontrovertible truth governs this controversy. While non fluorinated firefighting foam may be adequate for vapor suppression involving spills and other releases, it is nowhere close to being an effective tool for industrial emergency responders dealing with large volume flammable liquid storage tank fires.