By Treven Pyles
Posted on April 07th, 2023
While up to 97% of Americans have PFAS in their blood, the concentration of these harmful chemicals is usually much higher in the blood of firefighters who use AFFF. Even in low amounts, the presence of PFAS in the body can trigger serious diseases, including several forms of cancer.
The formula of the fire suppressant AFFF was devised by the U.S. Navy and 3M company in 1966. One year later, after 134 sailors died in a fire aboard the USS Forrestal, the fire suppressant was present on each vessel to help avoid similar catastrophes. Nevertheless, AFFF contains PFAS, a group of over 9,000 toxic chemicals, in a 50% to 98% concentration. This makes it highly toxic to human health and the environment.
PFAS are often dubbed "forever chemicals" because once they are released by firefighters who use AFFF, some persist in the environment for over a thousand years. These chemicals also stay in the body for a long time, taking approximately four years for the level to go down by half. Two of the most known substances from this group are PFOS and PFOA, which have a strong association with the following malignant diseases:
The current safe exposure limit to PFOS and PFOA is 70 ppt, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. However, recently, the agency has proposed much lower concentrations for these chemicals - 0.02 ppt for PFOS and 0.004 ppt for PFOA. Ultimately, the Environmental Protection Agency wants the limits to be as close as possible to zero, as a growing body of medical research has shown how toxic these substances are.
In addition to cancer, PFAS exposure can result in weakened immunity, endocrine disruption, fertility problems, and decreased birth weight. Furthermore, children with a high PFAS level in their blood have a poorer response to routine childhood vaccinations against diphtheria and tetanus. When they have these chemicals in their bodies, children lose 50% of the antibodies they should have from their vaccinations.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, even small concentrations of PFAS can be harmful, as these chemicals are slowly eliminated by the body.
Civilian and military firefighters are regularly exposed to these dangerous chemicals when using AFFF, so they inevitably end up having very high concentrations of PFOS and PFOA in their blood. To make matters worse, these substances are also present in their protective gear, which, as it wears out, releases PFAS.
Cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters, and their constant exposure to PFAS greatly contributes to the development and progression of malignant diseases. Firefighters have a 9% higher risk of developing cancer and a 14% increased risk of dying from cancer. Moreover, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters, cancer was responsible for 66% of firefighter deaths from 2002 to 2019.
Even if they wear turnout gear when using AFFF, firefighters are still exposed to PFAS. A glimmer of hope for military firefighters is the Pentagon announcing that it will cease using AFFF by 2024 and replace the fire suppressant with a PFAS-free alternative. This will considerably reduce firefighters' risk of struggling with cancer and other health problems PFAS exposure causes. Still, they will continue to be exposed to these toxic chemicals from their turnout gear.