What is PFAS and How Does it Affect the Fire & Emergency Service?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) is a collection of manufactured chemicals that include PFOA, PFOS, Gen X, and many other chemicals. The larger body of chemicals are referred to as fluorinated chemicals, and are characterized by strong fluorine-carbon bonds.
Fluorinated chemicals’ indestructible quality is also what makes them an effective firefighting tool. The chemical enables aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) to act as a thermal and evaporation barrier. In the event of a fire, AFFF inhibits and eventually extinguishes combustion.
The fire and emergency service has become increasingly aware of the health threats posed by fluorinated chemical exposure and contamination. IAFC members should be aware of PFAS as it may be present in AFFF and has the potential to affect human health.
Excessive exposure to PFAS is thought to affect the following in humans:
- The immune system
- Cancer (for PFOA)
- Thyroid hormone distribution (for PFOS)
- Hormone production and regulation
- Cholesterol levels
The following official factsheets provide more information about the background, health effects and properties of PFAS:
Effectiveness of Fluorine Free Firefighting Foams
Evaluation of the fire protection effectiveness of fluorine free firefighting foams (pdf), Report by NFPA Research Foundation
Your State Guide to PFAS
Many state and local governments around the U.S. are creating laws and policies that limit or ban the use of PFAS. IAFC members need to know how their state is treating PFAS and the actions they need to take to comply with the law.
Here a few examples of states that have addressed or are beginning to address PFAS:
On June 3, 2019, Governor Jared Polis signed H.B.1279, banning the use of class B aqueous film forming foam. The bill also forbids the sale of PFAS foam under certain conditions and requires manufacturers to agree to regulations and limits the use and issuing of all AFFF.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will complete a survey to research the amount of PFAS foam currently within, used and disposed of by fire departments in the state of Colorado.
On March 22, 2019, Governor Matt Bevin signed S.B. 104, banning the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS for training and testing purposes. This law will go into effect on July 2020.
In May 2019, Governor Brian Kemp signed a law that restricts the use of AFFF during training and authorizes its use during emergencies.
In the fall of 2018, Pennsylvania formed a multi-agency action team to address PFAS concerns. Many residents in different areas around the state expressed concern about PFAS due to contamination being found within their water system. In addition, the state plans to hire a toxicologist and two associates under the toxicologist to evaluate multiple strategies to keep PFAS out of all drinking water systems.
Other U.S. States
Learn more about how your state is addressing PFAS:
What is the Federal Government Doing about PFAS?
In February 2019, the EPA released its PFAS Action Plan. In the document, the agency identifies PFAS as an emerging chemical challenge and lists the ways in which the agency plans to take short- and long-term action on PFAS. Each of the EPA's efforts to address PFAS can be categorized under one or more of the following areas:
- Drinking water
- Risk communications
Some priorities identified in the 72-page action plan include:
- Ground water cleanup
- Research on the impact of PFAS and newer generation fluorinated chemicals on human health
- Coordinated messaging across the federal government
- Expanding knowledge about PFAS in everyday commerce
- Understanding transport mechanism for PFAS in the atmosphere
The U.S. Department of Defense has begun to address its contribution to groundwater and drinking water pollution as a result of PFAS training and testing.
Learn more about the steps U.S. government departments and agencies are taking to address the rules and regulations surrounding PFAS:
Learn how to protect yourself against exposure to dangerous chemicals found in firefighting aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) solutions by watching this short and helpful U.S. Fire Administration Video.
Brandon Allen, IAFC Government Relations Manager
John Woulfe, Program Director, Hazmat, Tech Council, Special Projects