Firefighting Foam

Understanding Cancer Risks Associated with Firefighting Foam

The ‘firefighting foam’ used to extinguish fires caused by flammable fluids is highly carcinogenic and linked to serious health hazards. Since the 1960s, aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF), called firefighting foam, have been a gold standard in managing Class B fires. Only in 2022, the assumption changed. Researchers found that the substance widely used to save lives has been a silent killer of our firefighting heroes. 

What is AFFF?

Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF) is a synthetic-based firefighting foam that is used to extinguish flammable liquid fires (Class B fires). It is water-based and typically contains hydrocarbon-based surfactants, fluorosurfactants, and other components. 

AFFF extinguishes fires by creating a film over the fuel, blocking oxygen. This barrier also cools the fuel, preventing re-ignition. Such a foam is known for its capacity to disperse across the hydrocarbon fuels. It is widely considered in various fire suppression methods, fire training establishments, and firefighting vehicles. 

PFAS – The Toxins in Firefighting Foam

AFFF includes trace levels of dangerous chemicals per- and poly-fluoroalkyl compounds (PFAS). These are called “forever chemicals” due to its persistence in the environment.

Synthetic organofluorine compounds with at least one completely fluorinated moiety are referred to as PFAS. They are recognized for their long-lasting nature and having practical qualities, including non-stick, water-repellent, and anti-grease. 

They can pass through soils, nevertheless, as they don’t decompose in the environment. This can bioaccumulate in fish and wildlife and further contaminate sources of drinking water.

The more than 5,000 distinct PFAS are divided into two types: non-polymers and polymers. Some flame-retardant chemicals, specifically PFAS: perfluorooctyric acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), have a greater concern. They are known to pose probable health risks.

PFAS or Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are found in lakes, rivers, and a variety of aquatic and terrestrial animals. Exposure to PFAS can occur in ways: by consuming contaminated water, using PFAS-laden products, or living near polluted areas.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are putting efforts into determining the health concerns. Additionally, the National Fire Protection Association designs strategies for minimizing contact with PFAS and lowering the dangers connected with them.

The Health Hazards of AFFF

PFAS, found in AFFF, is persistent in the environment and has been connected to a higher risk of developing cancers. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies PFAS in AFFF as hazardous. It’s linked to cancer in animals, and similar impacts are presumed even in humans.

Individuals who frequently come into contact with AFFF, such as military firefighters, may be susceptible to developing firefighting foam cancer. Testicular cancer, kidney cancer, pancreatic cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer, lymphoma, leukemia, and ovarian cancer are among these cancers. The danger increases with an individual’s exposure to AFFF and the amount of PFAS in their body.

The Link Between Testicular Cancer and Firefighting Foam

Researchers link 9/11 firemen to increased testicular cancer risk, possibly due to high PFAS blood levels. This suggests a direct impact on health from PFAS in firefighting foam, especially with frequent exposure.

Firefighters and military personnel are exposed to PFAS through personal protective equipment. Polluted water, soil, and equipment contact also contribute to their PFAS exposure.

Understanding The Risks

PFAS are regularly used at airports and military bases for extinguishing oil-based fires. Health risks, including a potential increase in kidney and testicular cancers, have raised concerns about PFAS exposure. A pivotal study led by Dr. Mark Purdue and associates at the Uniformed Services University explored this. They focused on the impact of PFAS blood levels in active-duty Air Force personnel.

Testicular cancer is notably prevalent among U.S. servicemen and younger adult males. This research was groundbreaking as it used blood analysis within a military cohort for the first time. The study involved comparing 530 active-duty cancer cases with 530 healthy counterparts. Analysis of pre-diagnostic blood samples from the Defense Department’s Serum Repository was notable.

According to TorHoerman Law, if a person develops health concerns due to being exposed to AFFF, may choose to speak with a lawyer. They should learn about their legal rights and eligibility for compensation.

Broader Cancer Risks Associated with PFAS

Emerging research suggests links to cancers beyond the common testicular cancer, including potential risks for breast, kidney, and thyroid cancers. 

A nested case-control research found a potential link between PFAS exposure and a risk of postmenopausal breast cancer. Such an observation is especially relevant in cases involving tumors that are positive for hormone receptors. The association was observed with specific PFAS compounds, like PFOS and PFOA.​

An article from Breast Cancer Prevention Partners discusses the possible threat of breast cancer among female firefighters. This risk is attributed to their exposure to toxic chemicals like PFAS. Such assumptions led to the passing of SB 1044, banning PFAS in firefighting foam in California. 

However, the study notes the lack of extensive research on this topic, especially compared to studies on male firefighters. The Firefighter Cancer Registry Act of 2018 aims to collect data on cancer rates among firefighters, including women and minorities. Cancers like cervical and bladder cancers show elevated levels in female firefighters, yet data on breast cancer is not conclusive.

Further, thorough research on PFAS and cancer indicates that there might be connections between PFAS exposure and other hormone-related cancers. However, the evidence is inconclusive and limited at this stage. 

For example, a study used prediagnostic blood samples from women linked to the Finnish Cancer Registry. The result showed suggestive increased risks related to PFOA and PFOS for those diagnosed with thyroid cancer before age 40. This illustrates the complexity of establishing clear associations between PFAS and specific cancer types.

To wrap things up, people may be exposed to “forever chemicals” when using AFFF in firefighting, which raises the possibility of cancer. These are risks that military personnel and firefighters need to be aware of. Understanding one’s rights and controlling potential health issues can be aided by routine medical exams and legal counsel. Continuing investigation and raising public awareness are essential in addressing the possible risks associated with PFAS and AFFF.