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Editor-in-chief: Maurizio Roncaccia
Editors: Paul Trouth and Päivi Jokiniemi
Article related to: People and perspectives
Guest column: Fighting fire with safer foams
Starting as fluorine-free foams in the mid-1920s, firefighting foams established themselves as an effective tool for fighting fires. The growth of the petrochemical industry and consequently the spread of flammable products with high-energy content, such as plastics and fuels, throughout society created a new level of demand for fire protection.
Fluorinated surfactants were discovered in the late 1960s, leading to the development of aqueous film forming foams (AFFFs). These multiplied the performance of firefighting foams and helped to significantly cut the release of agents and combustion products into the environment. They became the most powerful tools to mitigate fire risks. However, this did not come without problems.
Thomas Leonhardt. Image: Thomas Leonhardt.
When the first suspicions about adverse impacts on health and environment of some fluoro compounds (e.g. PFOS, PFOA) arose in 2000, the firefighting agents industry started to investigate alternatives – fluoro compounds with better toxicological profiles and fluorine-free foams. The latter turned out to be a big challenge since, at that time, fluorine-free foams were not even close to the performance requirements of the petrochemical industry, which is the largest user of foam agents.
Rising environmental awareness and customer demand led to the current situation where all foam manufacturers are now offering fluorine-free foams at various levels of performance. Since fluorine-free foams on the market are not yet fully capable of replacing AFFFs in all applications, manufacturers continue to put a lot of effort into exploring this field.
While AFFFs work particularly well at low-foaming levels and are capable of spreading very quickly across liquid fuel surfaces, fluorine-free foams are very dependent on a good foam quality to be effective and do not perform as well in covering large areas. Therefore, AFFFs are still used, for example, in sprinkler systems or whenever large fuel areas need to be quickly extinguished such as a crash landing of an aircraft.
User organisations like LASTfire (bringing together 15 oil companies) and the German Werkfeuerwehrverband (German national association of industrial fire brigades) are undertaking extensive comparative studies to define the exact landscape of how different types of fluorine-free foam perform.
The studies look at how the fluorine-free foams perform and match them to the user’s need to see if there are any overlapping areas and, even more importantly, gaps. Flanked by a comprehensive risk analysis including fire risk, agent performance, and particularly also the environmental impacts of all possible options, this enables firefighters to safely use fluorine-free foams whenever possible, and AFFFs where ultimately necessary, without putting life, health, environment and assets at unacceptable risk.
The question of whether or not AFFFs will be fully replaced by fluorine-free foams depends on if and when technology will be able to close today’s gaps and what risks society is willing to accept.
Eurofeu sees itself as a facilitator of dialogue between users and manufacturers of firefighting agents and European regulatory bodies. We delegate experts to recover, filter and digest information affecting firefighting agents and provide summaries to our members, most of whom are not able to take on this task by themselves.
By increasing awareness of environmental and health-relevant issues, we support our members in changing their business strategies to meet and exceed customer demands and anticipate expected future changes.
Additionally, we help and encourage our members to objectively and comprehensively inform users of firefighting agents of the best practice for their use considering performance, health and environmental impacts. In turn, we collect and process information from the fire protection market’s stakeholders and provide this to legislators, helping them to gain a deeper understanding of the implications of future initiatives.
Dr Thomas Leonhardt is the co-founder and chairman of the section Fire Fighting Agents within Eurofeu.
Eurofeu is the European umbrella organisation of the national trade associations of the European fire protection industry representing the active fire protection supply industry of Europe. The section Fire Fighting Agents was founded in 2014 as a response to the growing need of manufacturers to communicate and interact with legislators and associated bodies.