US military and industry address problem of toxic firefighting foam

18 April 2018
US military aircraft firefighters are making the transition to environmentally friendlier foam (pictured are firefighters assigned to the 18th Civil Engineer Squadron during training at Kadena Air Base in Japan). Source: US Air Force/Senior Airman Nick Emerick

Military firefighters in the United States are switching to safer methods of limiting the pollution generated by aircraft crash responses, fire training, and mandatory testing of aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) vehicles.

The problem involves long-chain C8 fluorinated aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) that was used by military firefighters to extinguish Class B (flammable liquid) fuel fires. It contains perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonate acid (PFOS).

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a health advisory for PFOA and PFOS, calling them “contaminants of concern” as studies indicate that exposure to PFOA and PFOS over certain levels may result in adverse health effects, including some types of cancer and liver damage. Well-water contamination has occurred near military airfields, where AFFF was used in the aftermath of an aircraft crash or for firefighter training.

The US military is replacing its existing toxic C8 AFFF stocks with short-chain C6 fluorosurfactant-based AFFFs, or fluorine-free foams (F3), which are designed to be more environmentally sound and provides adequate protection. In particular, C6 is said to retain the firefighting capabilities of the longer-chain agents, with a lower environmental impact.

During the transition, the military has placed strict restrictions on the use of the legacy AFFF. When used, HAZMAT teams treat the scene as a hazardous site, removing and destroying foam residue before contamination can occur.

Because of the efforts of two US companies, military firefighters have also reduced the discharge of legacy AFFF into the environment during routine training exercises and compulsory fire truck testing.

A method developed by the US Navy (USN) for fire training and vehicle testing was licensed for series production to NoFoam Systems of LaJolla, California. The company provides an eponymous trailer-mounted water supply and metering electronics that allow measurement of foam flow rates from modified ARFF vehicles, without actually using AFFF.

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