Article Archive
Fluorotelomer Based Foams
Are they safe for continued use?
Volume 25 Summer

These are the conclusions of a benchmark paper written by Mike Willson BSc(Hons), MCIM of Willson Consulting, Australia (formerly Business Development Manager and Technical Foam & Equipment Specialist for Angus Fire UK, until Dec 2007), where he brings together the latest research and referencing on this important subject to help you make up your mind on the best way forward.

It is almost 10 years since PFOS was first accepted as a  Persistent, Bioaccumulative and Toxic ingredient in certain detergent based foam concentrates, and started being phased out of production and use in all firefighting foams. Firefighters  around the world have been  unsure whether the telomer based AFFF alternatives are safe for continued use, or whether they are better accepting the limitations of fluorine free alternatives. More evidence has been gathering to suggest that the answer is YES and that even the best efforts at fluorine free technology fall considerably short of the best fluorotelomer based products on the market, both in terms of fire performance, firefighter safety and environmental impact. This is a summary of the full paper with extensive detail and referencing of the recent findings, available on the JOIFF website  

Fluorotelomers do not bioaccumulate, are not toxic and are safe for continued use.

PFOS is proven Persistent Bioaccumulative and Toxic. Evidence through Rat and fish studies conducted  on 6:2 FTS breakdown products and  Surfactant 1157 confirmed that fluorotelomers are not bioaccumulative nor biopersistent (Korzeniowski & Cortina, 2008) and are radically different from PFOS. Rat studies have shown no oral toxicity to fluorotelomers and they are not a developmental toxin. Ecotoxicity testing concluded that fluorotelomers are of low ecotoxicity concern.

Some Fluorotelomer products do contain minute trace amounts of PFOA (PerFluoroOctanoic Acid) as an unwanted by-product  from the telomerisation chemical reaction. However tests on rat’s show that its biopersistence  is relatively low  (Korzeniowski, 2008). Major manufacturers have already reduced by-product PFOA levels in their products and manufacturing processes by at least 96%, ahead of the US EPA requirements.

Global fluorotelomer production dramatically increased over 5 fold from 1985 to 2000 as it became the major rival to ECF production. However the incidence of PFOS and  PFOA in human blood over this period was actually declining.

The latest US EPA advice confirms that “The information that EPA has available does not indicate that the routine use of consumer (fluorotelomer) products poses a concern.  At present, there are no steps that EPA recommends that consumers take to reduce exposures to PFOA.” The US EPA also has no preliminary health advisory notices for fluorotelomers, so they are considered safe for continued use. Health advisory notices are a prerequisite for concerns over any specific chemical listed by US EPA, like PFOS which is listed. Other foam ingredients in these fluorinated foam concentrates  are of low concern for firefighters as shown in the product’s MSDS. They are further diluted almost 100 times at normal firefighter use strength.

Fluorotelomers provide unique benefits to firefighters.

Fluorotelomers play a vital role in providing fast control and extinction of all flammable liquid fires under a diverse range of situations quickly and safely. They  minimise the spread of fire, resist reignition, reduce smoke pollution, protect casualties and keep firefighters safe from dangerous flare-ups and flashovers. Foams containing these important fluorotelomer chemicals also protect casualties and firefighter lives, by reducing the risk of flare up , flash backs and  preventing rapid escalation. Additionally they avoid the risk of boil-overs and escalation that can occur from “let it burn” policies, and ensure that minimal foam and water resources are used in any given incident. A recent study confirmed that even the best available Fluorine Free Foams(F3) would need replenishment three times as often as good quality AFFFs, to provide the same level of fire protection. (Schaefer et al, 2007).

Fluorine free foams (F3) are highly toxic, emulsify with hydrocarbons and breakdown suddenly.

Championed by some as “environmentally friendly”, F3 have been shown to be highly toxic to most aquatic organisms plus bacteria used in waste water treatment facilities. They also emulsify with hydrocarbon fuels, carry them past fuel separators into the environment causing potentially severe pollution incidents. They can breakdown suddenly under fire conditions, so need handling with extreme care. It would require around 50 times more AR-AFFF to be spilt in a river to kill fish, than most F3 products . Research shows F3 would need replenishment three times as often as good quality AFFFs to provide similar fire protection. When large quantities of foam are being used in major incidents this is a significant risk assessment consideration.

F3 needS to be handled with extreme care.

MSDS sheets confirm that synthetic detergent is the most toxic ingredient in most fire fighting foams and increased levels used in fluorine free products accentuate these problems. These significant disadvantages in environ-mental toxicity, emulsification and sudden flashbacks, put the safety of firefighters at considerable extra and unnecessary risk.

F3 has an important role to play in vehicle calibration and firefighter training, where controls can be put in place to contain firewater run-off and ensure adequate firefighter safety.

Benefits of latest fluorotelomer products.

Recent research has shown that the fluorotelomer breakdown product 6:2 FTS has naturally degraded by 10% to a C5 perfluorinated species. The latest shorter chain (6 and less) Capstone fluorotelomer products retain high performance while further reducing their potential environmental impacts.

Time to make up your own mind...

Maybe fluorotelomers are not as bad as many perceive  – the evidence has been  building for some time and is virtually now complete to confirm this view. Interestingly the mood at the UK Reebok conference last July was one of realization that fluorine free products did have serious limitations, and  modern fluorotelomer based products provided the most secure,  effective and safe products for firefighters, helping them  use the least foam and water resources per incident, into the foreseeable future.

Ultimately, we hope that F3 products -without the current drawbacks -will be developed. They will probably utilise new ingredients to achieve these challenging objectives. It requires a quantum shift to gain the performance we are seeking without the use of  fluorotelomers, but that still seems a long way off.        


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