A Troubling Connection: Exploring AFFF Foam’s Influence on Immune Health

Our immune system protects us from the constant barrage of germs and illness by acting as a tireless defender. When a foreign body or infection enters our body, our immune system springs into action to defend itself.

But what happens when a supposed protector becomes a potential threat? In this article, we will delve into the troubling connection between AFFF firefighting foam and its probable influence on human immune health.

Understanding AFFF Foam

Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) has been used in firefighting since its inception in 1902 by a Russian scientist. AFFF can combat cool burning liquids and smothering flames. Hence, it is used to extinguish flammable liquid fires, particularly fuel fires.

It achieves this through a special blend of hydrocarbon surfactants and fluorinated surfactants. These surfactants create a layer on the surface of the burning liquid, interrupting the fuel vapor reaching the fire and preventing reignition.

According to the Department of Environmental Conservation, AFFF is mostly used in a 3% or 6% concentration, depending on its ratio mixed with water. It is known as Type 3 or Type 6 accordingly. AFFF is commonly found at airports, fire departments, and industrial amenities that handle flammable liquids.

However, a recent theory about AFFF has cast a shadow over its legacy. Certain types of AFFF formulations contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). It is a class of man-made chemicals known for their persistence in the environment and latent health risks. Concerns have arisen about AFFF polluting drinking water sources near fire training grounds and areas where AFFF has been used to extinguish fires. 

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The Immune System: An Overview

Whenever an infection or foreign invader enters our body, our immune system becomes active with its special cells to defend itself and our body. These cells can detect foreign invaders such as parasites, bacteria, and viruses. They can also detect dead or damaged cells within our body.

Once a peril is detected, the immune system activates an inflammatory response. It involves sending white blood cells, including phagocytes, to the sites of infection. The increased blood flow and fluid in the area cause the classic signs of inflammation, such as swelling, redness, pain, and heat.

Phagocytes destroy foreign bodies and infected cells by engulfing them. Other immune cells, like lymphocytes, produce antibodies that can precisely target and neutralize pathogens (disease-causing germs). After the immune system clears the infection or foreign body, the body begins to repair damaged tissues.

It is a simplified overview; the immune system’s response can be much more complex depending on the threat. The immune system can sometimes overreact, leading to allergies or autoimmune diseases.

The Influence of AFFF Foam on Immune Health

The main culprit in the AFFF formulations is the PFAS used. These tenacious chemicals can gather in the body over time and may interfere with the immune system’s ability to fight infections and diseases.

According to TruLaw, PFAS exposure is linked to a weakened immune response, leaving individuals more susceptible to illnesses or autoimmune disorders. While the exact mechanisms are still being investigated, the potential for AFFF to compromise our body’s natural defenses has become a significant health concern. The once-celebrated firefighting foam AFFF now faces scrutiny for its potential impact on human immunity.

Many firefighters and military veterans who were exposed to AFFF for a long period and have developed health issues have filed an AFFF lawsuit. These AFFF lawsuits seek compensation for those exposed to AFFF firefighting foam.

The lawsuit holds AFFF manufacturers liable for damages associated with exposure as they failed to inform the users about the ill effects of AFFF.

Research and Findings

Research into the health effects of PFAS exposure is ongoing, but some studies suggest links to immune system problems, certain cancers, and developing issues. As a result, some fire departments and manufacturers are transitioning to PFAS-free AFFF alternatives. The debate surrounding AFFF highlights the need to balance fire safety with environmental and health considerations.

According to research by the National Library of Medicine, elevated serum levels of long-chain PFASs were found in firefighters. This is because firefighters are highly exposed to PFAS substances. Since PFAS chemicals linger in the body and accumulate over time, firefighters face long-term and compounding health effects from repeated exposure throughout their careers.

PFAS contamination isn’t limited to just one source. Communities can be exposed through various pathways, including contaminated drinking water, air, soil, food, and consumer products. However, workplace exposure can be far more concentrated.

Health Risks and Concerns

According to the CDC, a vast group of human-made chemicals known as PFAS have been silently woven into our world for over seven decades. Encompassing over 9,000 different compounds, PFAS can be found almost everywhere, from stain-resistant clothes to non-stick cookware. However, a dark side to PFAS is emerging.

The PFAS that are most dangerous for humans are familiar names like perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), and GenX (Hexafluoropropylene Oxide Dimer Acid). Exposure to these PFAS might have detrimental health effects, including an increased risk of cancer, elevated cholesterol, and potential harm to the immune system.

Regulatory Landscape

The regulatory landscape surrounding AFFF is currently in flux, reflecting growing worries about its PFAS content. While no central ban on AFFF exists in the U.S., some states have taken action independently. These state guidelines often focus on confining the use of PFAS-containing AFFF in training exercises or for routine firefighting.

The Environmental Protection Agency has announced a $1 billion investment through President Biden’s Investing in America agenda. This announcement addresses PFAS in drinking water and is part of the administration’s pledge to fight against PFAS pollution.

Some states mandate reporting necessities for AFFF storage and disposal. Internationally, countries like Canada have implemented near-total bans on manufacturing, importing, and using PFAS in AFFF, with exemptions for specific scenarios. As research into the health risks of PFAS continues, we can expect the regulatory landscape surrounding AFFF to evolve further. Potentially, it will lead to stricter federal regulations or a wider adoption of PFAS-free alternatives.

Mitigation and Prevention Strategies

Since PFAS are pervasive and persistent in the environment, complete avoidance can be challenging. However, several strategies can help minimize exposure and protect yourself and your community.

If you suspect contamination, you can test the drinking water at regular intervals for PFAS. Consider alternative sources like bottled water certified to be PFAS-free or installing a home water filtration system designed to remove PFAS.

As a community, you should support policies restricting the use and disposal of PFAS-containing products, particularly AFFF. Encourage legislation that promotes the development and adoption of safer PFAS alternatives. Raise awareness about PFAS contamination risks in your community. Educate others about potential exposure pathways and strategies to minimize them.

Companies should explore and adopt PFAS-free alternatives in industrial processes and firefighting foams whenever possible. They should also implement engineering controls in workplaces to minimize worker exposure to PFAS, such as improved ventilation systems and proper containment procedures.

The workers should be provided with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) if exposure cannot be eliminated through other means. Workers should be trained regularly on the risks of PFAS exposure and proper safety protocols. Implement health monitoring programs to track potential health effects in exposed workers.

By implementing these mitigation and prevention strategies at various levels, we can collectively work towards reducing PFAS exposure and protecting public health.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are there specific populations more vulnerable to immune health impacts from AFFF exposure?

Unlike the general public, workers might directly handle PFAS-containing products, breathe in airborne particles, or come into contact with them on their skin. It can lead to significantly higher exposure levels. The type of industry, specific occupation, and daily work activities all play a role in determining the exact PFAS a worker encounters.

How can individuals minimize their exposure to AFFF foam and protect their immune health?

It can be difficult to avoid AFFF exposure completely because small quantities of PFAS are found almost everywhere. Firstly, they should support policies restricting the use and disposal of PFAS-containing products, particularly AFFF. Individuals can minimize risk by filtering their drinking water for PFAS and advocating for PFAS-free firefighting foams in their communities. These steps can help protect their immune health from potential harm.

What are the symptoms of immune system impairment caused by AFFF foam exposure?

Direct symptoms of AFFF exposure are difficult to isolate. A weakened immune system caused by AFFF leads to frequent infections, fatigue, and slow healing, but there can also be other causes. If you experience these issues consistently, consult a healthcare professional to investigate the cause.


AFFF foam’s legacy is taking a complex turn. Once hailed as a firefighting hero, it now faces scrutiny for its potential impact on human health. The presence of PFAS chemicals raises concerns about immune system compromise and other health risks. While research is ongoing, it’s clear that a multi-pronged approach is needed. We can strive to extinguish flames by working together without compromising our immune defenses.

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