Many states are banning firefighting foams that contain fluorine products. Not only are the foams bad for people, but because the chemicals can’t break down into safer components, they can hurt the environment, too. The cancer-causing chemicals simply accumulate in the ground and often find their way into the water system.
We find Aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) products in many facilities, including municipal fire stations, chemical plants, airports, oil refineries and other centers that manufacture or store flammable liquids. They are extraordinarily effective in suppressing fires by spreading across a fire’s surface to form a film around the liquid that works to suffocate flames and keep them from reigniting.
Newer foams containing perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) substances hold promise because of their ability to extinguish fires just as effectively as hazardous AFFF foams. Plus, the foams are safer to store and to deploy when needed.
Switching to fluorine-free foams will require a learning curve for proper proportioning of the solution to water, as well as using new methods to apply foam to hotspots.
However, firefighting rules governing military and airport applications are delaying implementation of the new foams.
Steve Dryden, writing for Consulting Specify Engineer magazine (https://www.csemag.com/articles/changing-airport-firefighting-foam-suppression-systems) noted the U.S. Department of Defense requires aircraft fuel fires to be extinguished within 30 seconds of foam application and prevented from reigniting for 360 seconds.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires most commercial airports in America to meet the same military requirements. However, since current fluorine-free foams cannot meet military performance standards, they also cannot meet FAA requirements.
Yet, the FAA has mandated that airports stop using fluorine-based foams by Oct. 4, so the agency now allows equipment to be tested by using fluorine-free foams.
Citing a Department of Defense study, Dryden reported estimates for retrofitting vehicles to accommodate fluorine-free foams can range from $30,000 to $200,000 per vehicle. With nearly 5,000 commercial airports in America, combined with 3,000 military firefighting vehicles, the total cost to switch to safer foams could be staggering.
There are three broad categories of situations when departments may discharge AFFF foams.
Departments use AFFF foams during emergencies to suppress and extinguish fires, for equipment calibration ensure trucks discharge foam in the correct concentration, and during live fire training exercises. Though states now ban AFFF use in training exercises, departments still use the product at fires and for testing.
Testing is also an area where departments can make a difference. Manufacturers now offer equipment to test and calibrate AFFF-dispensing vehicles without releasing AFFF into the environment. The Ecologic, from E-One; NoFoam System, by NoFoam Systems; and Oshkosh Eco EFP (Electronic Foam Proportioning) System are among the options.
These mobile test carts, which cost $30,000+ dollars, allow for input-based testing of AFFF proportions without the expense or environmental impact of output-based tests. A single, compact cart can test and calibrate multiple trucks. The carts retrofit into the plumbing of the trucks to bypass the foam tank, then meter the draw out of the tanks to verify that the system functions correctly and delivers accurately proportioned foam.
One of the biggest concerns about switching to fluorine-free foams is what to do with the old product many facilities have stored on trucks or in fire suppression equipment. If departments introduce new product to storage containers containing fluorine residue, it contaminates the new foam.
As a result, it’s very important to remove old foam and completely clean the tanks so the new foam can’t contaminate people, water or the ground.
Some departments find it relatively easy to do the job themselves, while other agencies seek the help of outside contractors, like Vanguard (https://vanguard-fire.com/oil-gas/), to clean the equipment and dispose of the toxic chemicals.
Departments which seek to do it themselves will first need to discharge the current product from the tank, truck or fire suppression system. Then departments must clean the tank thoroughly, along with any other equipment in contact with the solution.
Contain and collect all wastewater as well. Then transport the old foam and wastewater to an incineration facility for safe disposal.
With the Environmental Protection Agency working with the Department of Defense and FAA to address the issue, a ban of all fluorine-based firefighting foams is imminent. While the change puts some burdens on departments, it will create safer working conditions for firefighters and a cleaner environment.