How Much Exposure to AFFF Is Safe?

Even as the hazards of PFAS (the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in AFFF) became hot topics at manufacturing headquarters, the public was not warned of the hazards associated with PFAS exposure. Firefighters who reflect on the early days of AFFF use remember how the seemingly harmless bubbles covered firefighting gear and training grounds—now known pathways of exposure.

Fire service industry workers now learning the devastating impact AFFF has made on the environment and public health have raised more questions, most notably: What amount of PFAS exposure is safe? 

Simply put, there’s no known volume of PFAS firefighting foams safe to breathe, touch, or consume, so exposure limits do not exist. Though much funding is allotted for researching and regulating firefighting foam use, there aren’t enough resources to unravel the complex health crisis that PFAS production caused.

The Complications in Setting PFAS Exposure Limits

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is putting together health advisories listing PFAS exposure limits. The EPA updated its drinking water health advisories for PFAS from 70 parts per trillion in 2016 to .002 for PFOS and .004 for PFOA in 2023; dedication to these types of studies offers promise to firefighters waiting for the day that health and environmental sciences will catch up to decades of negligent chemical engineering. But some progress doesn’t mean AFFF exposure safety guidelines will come easily.

Occupational Exposure to Carcinogens

For many firefighters their occupations were pathways to a cancer diagnosis. Firefighting is classified as a carcinogenic occupation by the National Cancer Institute Working Group. Even if you could eliminate exposure to combustibles and their byproducts, the adverse health effects resulting from aqueous suppressants remain. The timeline of AFFF use, including 40 years of legacy suppressant production and decades of modern formulations, has left thousands of civilian and military firefighters with undeniable financial and health burdens.  

The chemicals in legacy firefighting foam cannot be ignored and the current makeup of modern AFFF shouldn’t be trusted. Legacy AFFF contains PFOS and PFOA (as a byproduct), two PFAS that are classified as possibly carcinogenic to humans and carcinogenic to humans, respectively. Modern aqueous foam contains short-chain PFAS which are thought to be “safer” than long-chain PFOS/PFOA, but if we’ve learned anything from history it’s that factual AFFF case studies take time, and trusting firefighting foam manufacturers is a mistake. 

Is There a Safe Level of Exposure to Carcinogens?

There is no safe level of carcinogen exposure that is exempt from possible health consequences. Many health agencies and organizations believe that even small doses of PFAS can be linked to cancer and other conditions, and there is no evidence to say otherwise. With carcinogens, including the PFAS in AFFF, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, or another resulting disease may take years to reveal itself. 

Most firefighters believed AFFF was a mild irritant likely to cause a rash after contact. No one suspected any amount of exposure to firefighting foam would cause cancer. Due to the lack of information, first responders weren’t always fully protected from—or aware of—fumes, spills, leaks, residue, and run-off water, especially during hectic fire emergencies. Even routine procedures, like equipment maintenance, extinguisher testing, training exercises, and reservoir refilling, may have resulted in spills, drips, and splashes that were unknowingly setting years of health monitoring and conditions into motion. 

Manufacturers claim they didn’t have enough information about PFAS exposure limits to bother raising a red flag. But company stakeholders knew what the evidence was suggesting—and found it convincing enough—to bury the studies, white papers, and inter-office communications. 

The topic of AFFF exposure safety and its effect on firefighters is riddled with unknowns. Those affected need to ask only one question, “How do I file an AFFF lawsuit?” to start getting answers. The multidistrict lawsuit strives to break the silence of manufacturers, delivering the long-awaited answers and accountability that firefighters and their families deserve.