How a safety factor turned into a danger: PFAS in firefighting foam

When fighting some of the hottest, most dangerous fires – those caused by burning hydrocarbon fuels – firefighters often rely on Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF, or “A-triple-F”). AFFF has saved a lot of buildings and lives.

But now, there are safety concerns associated with one of the key ingredients in AFFF that provides its fire-suppressing punch. This risk is from Per-and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, collectively known as PFAS.

Why PFAS in AFFF is a problem

PFAS are often called “forever chemicals” because their molecules are persistent and will not easily break down. This, ironically, is one reason PFAS are such key ingredients in firefighting foams – PFAS molecules include combinations of carbon and fluorine, which is one of the strongest chemical bonds known to science. This makes the foam able to survive the high temperatures of a hydrocarbon fire without breaking down, so it can do its fire-suppressing work.

But now, regulatory agencies like the US-EPA are looking more closely into the environmental and human health implications of PFAS. The EPA is considering listing some kinds of PFAS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA, also known as Superfund).

For firefighting, there are three main areas of concern around PFAS-containing AFFF:

  • Employee health & safety: This can include firefighters breathing in AFFF spray or foam, or ingesting it through the digestive system. There are no clear guidelines on this matter yet.
  • Current firefighting systems: AFFF has become a firehall staple because it works. So far, there are only experimental, non-fluorine foam products that might act as a replacement. Leaders in the firefighting community are watching closely, to balance environmental and human safety from PFAS-related risks, against the need to protect lives and properties from fire.
  • Impacts at fire-training sites: One of the biggest environmental concerns comes from firefighting training sites, where large amounts of AFFF may have soaked into the ground, possibly contaminating groundwater. This can be at training sites for fire departments of municipalities, airports and large industries. Many nearby residents are concerned about potential risks to their well-water supply.

The race to destroy PFAS to deal with AFFF impacts

Several technologies are being used to destroy PFAS.

One of the most promising is plasma vortex. This technology safely destroys PFAS molecules by harnessing the fourth state of matter, plasma. Within the plasma vortex reactor, a voltage gradient is applied between two electrodes. This creates an electric field that strips electrons from the inflowing gas molecules, creating charged ions and releasing a plasma discharge. The ions, which are charged particles, and the high-energy electrons are highly chemically reactive, and are capable of breaking down PFAS molecules.

Onvector LLC, has been using plasma vortex to treat AFFF-impacted groundwater in a successful project for a US Military Base on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Read about this here).

Our plasma vortex technology is reliable, energy efficient and cost effective. To learn more about Onvector’s technology, click here.