PFAS are a range of man-made chemicals that have been used since the 1940s in a wide range of both industry and consumer products. They have been frequently used due to their resistance to heat, water, and oil.
In recent years, PFAS have been found to have harmful affects on life and the environment, resulting is legislation that seeks to prohibit their manufacture and sale.
In this guide, we will explore PFAS chemicals and what they are used for, including how they’re used in foam fire extinguishers. You will learn about their potential hazards and get necessary information on existing and future legislation surrounding PFAS, including how you may be affected.
What are PFAS?
PFAS stands for Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. This name applies to over 4700 chemicals that share a similar molecular structure. In particular, these chemicals posses a carbon change and the element fluorine. The carbon-fluorine bond in PFAS is very strong, which makes them very difficult to break down.
Thanks to their strong carbon-fluorine bonds PFAS are extremely resistant to being broken down. This means that heat they are highly resistant to oil and water – all of which traditionally break down chemicals.
What are they used in?
The specific qualities of PFAS mean that they are used in a wide range of industries and products. These include:
Due to their chemical makeup, PFAS are commonly used in cookware in order to make them non-stick. Many non-stick frying pans and other cookware contain PFAS thank to the lack of friction between the specific PFAS in non-stick cookware and whatever comes into contact with them. The surface of the cookware becomes very smooth and it becomes far more difficult for food to adhere to it.
Due to the strong chemical bonds in PFAS, this makes other chemicals unable to break them apart. Instead, they simply slip off. That makes PFAS very popular when manufacturing clothing thanks to its ability to make clothes water and stain resistant. PFAS are most commonly used in outdoor clothing, waterproof apparel, school uniforms, and high-performance uniforms like those worn by firefighters.
PFAS are also what are known as ‘surfactants.’ Surfactants are used to help liquids mix more effectively. This makes it a common choice for use in cleaning products like glass and hard surface cleaners, fabric cleaners, and dishwashing rinse aids. PFAS are also often found in floor polishes, and wall paints.
As surfactants, PFAS improve foam control, helping firefighting foam to spread and suppress fire. PFAS are also resistant to high temperatures. These qualities make them useful for extinguishing Class B fires, since the foam is able to cover the surface of the liquid, starving the fire of oxygen.
What are the hazards of PFAS?
During both product and use, PFAS can get into the soil, water, and air. Most PFAS do not break down. This means that when they get into the environment, they stay there. This means that they are capable of ending up in food products and natural habitats. Over time, these PFAS can building up in the bodies of humans and animals. This exposure can occur through drinking contaminated water, eating food grown or raised near places that used PFAS, or eating food packaged in material that uses PFAS.
There is an increasing amount of evidence that PFAS have been linked to adverse health effects. These can include health issues like cancer, liver damage, immune system disruption, thyroid disease, impaired fertility, and even resistance to vaccines.
It’s important to note that this only applies to certain PFAS and the evidence of their harm is somewhat contested. However, the evidence does strongly suggest that certain types of PFAS can lead to potential environmental and health problems following periods of extended exposure.
Do fire extinguishers contain PFAS?
PFAS are present in some fire extinguishers. Specifically, there are PFAS in AFFF fire extinguishers. These PFAS aren’t an intentional feature of AFFF extinguishers. Instead, they’re an unintentional result of the AFFF manufacturing process. However, there are many other fire extinguishers that do not contain PFAS. These ‘fluorine free’ fire extinguishers include water based, dry powder, and CO2 fire extinguishers.
These fluorine-free fire extinguishers are not direct replacement for AFFF fire extinguishers, but many of them can tackle the some of the same fire classifications as foam. If you’re unsure about which fires your extinguishers are suitable for, it’s important that you refer back to your Fire Risk Assessment.
The current legislation around PFAS
Due to the potential health issues that have been observed, some types of PFAS have been classed as POPs, or persistent organic pollutants. This has led them to restrictions on their manufacture, sale, and the use of products containing them.
Legislation is due to be announced before the end of 2024 that will ban on PFAS. This is likely to result in increased legislation around the manufacture and sale of AFFF fire extinguishers.
There is not currently any concrete information on how PFAS and AFFF fire extinguishers will be regulated, potential changes will begin being announced by the end of the year.
How does this affect you?
As of yet, you are not legally required to make any changes when it comes to the use of AFFF fire extinguishers. While a ban on PFAS is coming in 2024, it will likely begin with legislation on the manufacture and sale of products that contain PFAS.
There are no changes to the use of existing foam fire extinguishers currently proposed. This means that you are under no legal obligation to stop using your AFFF fire extinguishers. Even if the manufacture and sale of AFFF fire extinguisher is banned, there will likely be a grace period where you’re still legally able to use them in your building.
The science behind PFAS is very complex and our understanding of these chemicals and their effects is still evolving. What is known is that, despite their uses across multiple industries, their categorisation and persistent organic pollutants, their use is likely to decrease as time goes on.
As new information is released, OHEAP Fire & Security will keep you updated. If you have any questions about PFAS, AFFF, or fluorine free fire extinguishers, you can speak to one of our BAFE qualified engineers on 0330 999 8786 or click here to get in touch online.