Protecting Your Health From AFFF Exposure: Tips for First Responders


Firefighting can be a dangerous and unpredictable job, with first responders facing a variety of risks and hazards on the job. One risk that has gained increased attention in recent years is exposure to Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF), a firefighting foam used to extinguish fires involving flammable liquids.

While AFFF can be effective at fighting fires, it contains a class of chemicals known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that can have negative health impacts on humans. For first responders who work with AFFF on a regular basis, taking steps to protect themselves from exposure is essential.

In this article, we’ll explore some tips and best practices for first responders to protect their health from AFFF exposure, including personal protective equipment (PPE), decontamination techniques, and health monitoring.

1Understanding AFFF and Its Health Risks

Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) is a firefighting foam that has been used for several decades to combat fires involving flammable liquids such as gasoline, oil, and jet fuel. AFFF, which stands for aqueous film-forming foam, includes PFAS, a type of artificial chemical that has a long-lasting impact on the environment and tends to build up in the human body over time.   

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposes that per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) may be considered dangerous materials and fall under the category of hazardous substances as defined by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).

Studies recently published in the National Library of Medicine have revealed that exposure to PFAS is connected to various negative health consequences, such as cancer, weakened immune system, disruption of thyroid and sex hormones, and reduced semen quality in firefighters. The research also suggests that exposure to these substances may lead to metabolic issues, ulcerative colitis, and harmful effects on the liver and kidneys.

In addition to the health risks associated with PFAS exposure, there are also concerns about the environmental impact of AFFF. PFAS are known to be highly persistent in the environment, and as a result, there are growing efforts to find safer alternatives to AFFF that are effective at fighting fires without the negative health and environmental impacts of PFAS.

2Personal Protective Equipment for AFFF Exposure

When working with Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF), personal protective equipment (PPE) is crucial for protecting first responders from exposure to PFAS. PPE can include gloves, boots, goggles, respirators, and full-body suits that create a barrier between the responder and the foam.

According to information on the website of International Enviroguard, industries show significant differences in exposure to PFAS, and protective clothing plays a vital role in minimizing direct contact. Firefighters are at a heightened risk due to the use of suppressant foams and fire-resistant outerwear controversy. Aprons, coveralls, shoe coverings, masks, and goggles are recommended as protective clothing for workers to perform their duties safely.

Using appropriate PPE is critical for minimizing the risk of PFAS exposure during firefighting and other emergency response activities involving AFFF. To safeguard against inhaling PFAS, it’s especially crucial to utilize respiratory protection, like an SCBA, which is a self-contained breathing apparatus. Proper gloves and other protective clothing should also be worn to prevent skin contact with AFFF. 

It’s essential to recognize that not all personal protective equipment (PPE) is equally effective in shielding against PFAS exposure. Some types of PPE may actually increase PFAS exposure by trapping the chemicals against the skin. 

Choosing the right PPE is critical to minimizing exposure, and PPE made from materials that are less likely to accumulate PFAS, such as Tyvek and nitrile, is recommended. Proper training in using and maintaining PPE is also crucial for ensuring that first responders are effectively protected from AFFF exposure.

3Decontamination Techniques After AFFF Exposure

Decontamination is a critical step after exposure to Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) to minimize the risk of PFAS exposure. 

Decontamination techniques involve removing contaminated clothing, washing the skin thoroughly with soap and water, and flushing any exposed areas with copious amounts of water. It is important to note that decontamination should occur as soon as possible after exposure to AFFF. You can use soap and water to clean exposed skin, flush contaminated areas with water for at least 20 minutes, and avoid the use of hot water or abrasive soaps, which can increase PFAS absorption.

Proper decontamination techniques can be challenging, particularly in outdoor or remote settings where access to water and specialized decontamination products may be limited. First responders should be trained in proper decontamination techniques and have access to appropriate decontamination supplies. In addition, it’s important to follow all local, state, and federal regulations and guidelines related to Aqueous Film Forming Foam use and disposal to minimize the risk of exposure to PFAS.

While decontamination can reduce the risk of PFAS exposure, it’s important to note that long-term health effects from exposure to AFFF are still being studied. In recent years, there have been a number of AFFF lawsuits filed by first responders and military personnel who allege that exposure to AFFF caused them harm. The outcomes of certain legal cases have led to substantial settlements for the individuals who filed the lawsuits.

It’s crucial for first responders to be aware of the risks associated with AFFF exposure and take steps to protect themselves through the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and proper decontamination techniques. 

Moreover, staying informed about AFFF lawsuit settlement amounts can help raise awareness about the dangers of these chemicals and hold companies accountable for their role in exposing first responders to harmful substances.  

4Health Monitoring and Screening for First Responders

Health monitoring and screening are critical for protecting first responders from the potential long-term health effects of AFFF exposure. Aqueous Film Forming Foam contains PFAS chemicals linked to various health problems, including cancer, liver and kidney damage, and immune system dysfunction. Regular health check-ups can aid in the timely detection of any medical problems and ensure that appropriate treatment is administered timely. 

Research has indicated that firefighters are more likely to have elevated levels of PFAS in their bloodstream compared to an average American. PFAS chemicals have been associated with a variety of health issues, such as certain types of cancer, negative reproductive impacts, and decreased vaccine effectiveness. This highlights the importance of regular health monitoring for firefighters and other first responders who may be exposed to AFFF on the job.

In line with this, the Protecting Firefighters from Adverse Substances (PFAS) Act, aimed at helping firefighters reduce exposure to toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS, has been passed by the House and cleared the Senate. The bill will also facilitate the search for firefighting equipment and tools made without harmful PFAS.  

In addition to regular health monitoring, first responders should also be aware of the potential long-term health effects of AFFF exposure and seek medical attention if they experience any symptoms. Symptoms of PFAS exposure can vary depending on the level and duration of exposure but can include headache, nausea, abdominal pain, and difficulty concentrating.

Final Thoughts

Ensuring the safety and well-being of first responders necessitates safeguarding them against AFFF exposure. By taking preventative measures such as using personal protective equipment, following proper decontamination procedures, and participating in regular health monitoring, first responders can reduce their risk of long-term health problems associated with Aqueous Film Forming Foam exposure.

It’s important for first responders to also be aware of the potential health risks and seek medical attention if they experience any symptoms. With increased awareness and proactive measures, it’s possible to reduce the harm caused by AFFF exposure and ensure the safety of our first responders.