While fluorine is a valuable element in fighting fires and protecting firefighters, many have linked the rise in firefighter cancer to the effects of bunker gear that contains this chemical. The prevalence of firefighting chemicals made with fluorine, broadly known as polyfluoroalkyl substances, has spurred many in the industry to call for stricter regulations or eliminate fluorine in bunker gear.
What Is Fluorine?
Fluorine is a yellow-green, gaseous substance that is highly reactive compared to the other elements. Fluorine also attacks other metals and breaks down their components. While manufacturers did not typically work with the element until WWII, aspects of fluorine salts called fluorides were a common material in welding to frost glass. The nuclear power industry also experienced a production boom, and many manufacturers began to use a kind of fluorine called uranium hexafluoride. Fluorine is also an ingredient in sulfur hexafluoride, which manufacturers use to assist in gas insulation for electricity transformers.
How Do Firefighters Use Fluorine?
In the firefighting industry, fluorine creates water-repelling, moisture-resistant and dirt-repelling products. Firefighter gear must protect the wearer from fire, smoke, heat and chemicals. Firefighters have used fluorine in their equipment and clothing for many years.
Fluorine is also an ingredient in foam that combats fires. Aqueous film-forming foam is a compound that helps extinguish larger liquid fires and causes a film to form around the fire, burning away the hydrocarbon and reducing the fire's impact.
The Concern Around Foams and Gear That Contain Fluoride
Firefighting foam and gear contain PFAS, which is an abbreviation for polyfluoroalkyl substances. While many agree that the chemicals help protect firefighters from the effects of fire, some are also concerned about related health concerns.
What Are PFAS?
Polyfluoroalkyl substances are a collection of chemicals manufactured for several uses to protect against moisture and fires. The larger body of fluorinated chemicals often uses fluorine to create carbon bonds to act as fire and water repellents.
These fluorinated chemicals have many essential qualities that firefighters can use as practical firefighting tools. Because fluorine is practically indestructible, it acts as a thermal and evaporation barrier in foams and clothing to help protect firefighters and extinguish fires and combustions.
PFAS and Related Health Concerns
Exposure to fluorinated chemicals can often lead to contamination or health threats that can hurt firefighters and emergency personnel over time. Many aqueous film-forming foams contain PFAS and have proven to adversely affect human health through excessive exposure. Some health concerns include the following.
- Cancer: PFAS can lead to various kinds of cancer years after exposure.
- Thyroid hormone distribution: Fluorine from PFAS or firefighting foam may affect the thyroid by distributing various hormones.
- Affected cholesterol levels: Changes to cholesterol levels may lead to other health complications in the body.
- Compromised immune systems: A weakened immune system can open the door to other health issues and illnesses.
How PFAS Health Concerns Affect the Firefighting Industry
Many firefighters experience high rates of cancer linked to PFAS exposure. Such cancers include prostate cancer, testicular cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and mesothelioma. The clothing and turnout gear worn by firefighters often includes fluoropolymer textiles with large amounts of fluorine in the moisture-resistant layer.
While it is common for turnout gear to have a PFAS treatment that makes it water-resistant, the moisture barrier at the center contains the highly fluorinated textiles that we now know cause health issues. The different layers of the turnout gear can rub against each other, and over time, cause the PFAS to migrate from under the moisture layer to the thermal layer where the fabric touches the skin.
Current Fluorine and PFAS Regulations
Though only a small handful of current regulations ban or limit the use of PFAS, people are demanding change. The United States Department of Defense has begun addressing its contribution to drinking water pollution and groundwater fluorine chemicals. In February 2019, the EPA published a PFAS Action Plan to deal with the chemical challenges associated with fluorine products. The agency planned to take action against specific health crises and address the growing concerns of many in the firefighting industry. Some of those efforts included the following.
- Addressing drinking water: Researching and tackling concerns about fluoride in drinking water.
- Communicating cleaning efforts: Initiating groundwater cleanup in areas where a large amount of fluorine exists.
- Acknowledging toxins: Responding to concerns about the effects of some fluorine chemicals on the human body.
- Monitoring PFAS: Paying attention to the current effects of PFAS in the firefighting industry.
- Administering new research: Starting and continuing research on how PFAS impacts the human body.
- Enforcing regulations: Working with the federal government to produce coordinated messages and helpful legislation.
- Communicating risks: Spreading awareness about the dangers of PFAS in everyday commerce.
Fluorine in Manufacturing
Manufacturers use fluorine in many chemicals like solvents and high-temperature plastics to make products for various industries. For example, a kind of fluorine chemical called tetrafluoroethylene is a primary element in Teflon, a material used in frying pans due to its nonstick properties.
You can also find fluorine in cable insulation, plumber's tape and Gore-Tex, a durable material used in waterproof clothing and shoes. Other chemicals like hydrofluoric acid or CFCs etch glass bulbs, create aerosol propellants and make refrigerants. However, the government eventually banned CFC production due to these chemicals' negative impact on the ozone layer after diffusion.
Foam Concentrate and Fluorine-Free Firefighting Foams
Fluorine can be helpful in situations where firefighters need to quickly and efficiently stop a fire from spreading. The problem is that fluorine never breaks down or deteriorates and can seep into local water systems and pollute the drinking water. Fluorine may also be present in the food chain, where animals and humans ingest chemicals that don't degrade after firefighter usage. We've only scratched the surface of exploring the toxic effects of fluorine in the food chain and drinking water.
The Move to Fluorine-Free Foams
Fluorine-free foams have begun to replace aqueous film-forming foams, with research for alternative options furthered by the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Defense and the National Fire Protection Association. However, there are a few problems in replacing AFFFs with alternative chemicals.
For one, FFFs are less effective, so firefighters who want to use them must adopt new strategies for dealing with fires. However, FFFs continue to improve due to research by various companies. In time, many in the industry hope to use FFFs, provide new training on their usage and promote new legislation that solidifies its use in the industry.
The NFPA's Plan for the Future
The National Fire Protection Association recently published its Firefighting Foams: Fire Service Roadmap, which outlined how they plan to transition from using aqueous film-forming foams to FFFs. With further research into FFFs, the NFPA hopes to switch to firefighting foam and equipment that eliminates the use of fluorine chemicals.
The Fire Service Roadmap outlines the thoughts and research from various people in the firefighting industry, those in the research and science fields, some in the fuel industry, stakeholders and other advocates from the Environmental Protection Agency and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
In the panel, the NFPA sought to make others aware of current regulations and when they planned to start the transition. Along with other tutorials on firefighting foam and using less harmful alternatives, the NFPA wanted the panelists to be aware of the rising health concerns from PFAS products and sought ways to minimize people's exposure. From equipment cleaning to the disposal and documentation of fluorine products, the NFPA is preparing to transition to FFFs while ensuring firefighting personnel's safety.
Fluorine Use in Bunker Gear for Fire Protection
Bunker gear, also called turnout gear, is a kind of personal protective equipment worn by firefighters to protect them from heat while they save lives on the job. Bunker gear can minimize the risk of harm from fire and other chemicals while using the latest technology to make the gear comfortable and durable.
The Outer Shell
The outer shell layer of the bunker gear is often the first line of defense against different substances. While heat and fire may be the first hazards, bunker gear can also shield the wearer from water, sharp objects and dangerous chemicals. An outer shell also works to protect the rest of the layers from damage.
While solid and flexible, the outer shell allows firefighters to move freely throughout the scene while remaining protected against various dangers during the workday.
To check the quality of the outer shell, look at these aspects.
- Flame resistance: Aside from flame resistance, the outer shell should be able to withstand very high temperatures without breaking down or catching fire.
- Measured through LOI: The limiting oxygen index is the amount of oxygen that is necessary to catch fire. Measuring an outer shell with this metric is one way to ensure it won't catch fire.
- Possible embrittlement: An outer shell may become brittle over time and lose some of its durability and flexibility. If the outer shell has broken down, the bunker gear may not be suitable for use.
- Dye sublimation: Extreme heat may cause discoloration or cause the coloring of the gear to dissipate.
The Thermal Shell
The second layer of the bunker gear is the thermal shell, which helps protect the firefighter from extreme heat through a specialized liner. Paired with the moisture barrier, the thermal layer provides added heat protection by trapping air in nonwoven fabric layers.
The thermal layer manages moisture and wicks away sweat. Because the thermal layer is flexible and smooth to the touch, many firefighters can breathe while staying protected from flame. The material and fabric layers help keep the heat at bay while ensuring the firefighter can still move freely.
The Moisture Barrier — How and Why Fluorine in Bunker Gear Is Essential
The third layer of fabric within the bunker gear is the moisture-resistant barrier. This layer protects the skin from dangerous liquids like swimming pool chemicals, antifreeze, battery acid or hydraulic fluids that may all be present at the scene of a fire. A moisture layer also wicks away moisture by lessening the intensity of temperatures found in fires and reducing the amount of sweat that builds up on the skin and fabric.
Fluorine in the moisture barrier acts as a heat- and water-resistant property while reducing the chance that harmful chemicals may come in contact with the firefighter's skin. Bunker gear requires that firefighters are impervious to heat damage, and fluorine adds a layer of protection that many other chemicals can't replicate. While fluorine is no longer present in the outer shell layer, it remains a crucial component in the moisture barrier. Because of this, the health effects of PFAS are still a concern.
As many different associations and advocates work together to eliminate or lessen PFAS usage, the future of firefighting seems optimistic. Many companies have begun to offer semi-non-fluorinated gear that takes advantage of new technological advancements and encourages industries to use fewer fluorine chemicals.
Bunker Gear Specialists offers a fantastic array of gear like boots, hoods and bunker gear for companies to rent and purchase. Our company provides bunker gear to industrial companies, fire departments and other municipal sectors that need safe, durable and NFPA 1851-compliant rental equipment.
Many fire departments must follow the standards set by their city legislators, and Bunker Gear Specialists can ensure you have the required equipment. Whether you need gear for a short-term rental, a quick replacement for the gear that's out for cleaning and repairs or want to rent bunker gear for training, we can find the right long-lasting product for your every need.
Our bunker gear rentals also come with coats, suspenders, boots, hoods, helmets and pants, with guidance on correct usage and proper cleaning. With competitive prices and assistance in wet-washing and air-drying gear, Bunker Gear Specialists offers a new form of semi-non-fluorinated equipment that can help reduce the adverse effects of fluorine chemicals.
How Non-Fluorinated Bunker Gear May Become Part of the NFP Standard
The International Association of Firefighters is working with advocacy groups, stakeholders, legislative leaders and researchers across America to eliminate harmful fluorinated chemicals from protective firefighter equipment. Though no legislation or regulations have changed as of this article, the IAFF has partnered with the American Cancer Society and hired a chief medical officer to expand the research surrounding the effects of PFAS and fluorine products.
Find Semi-Non-Fluorinated Bunker Gear at BGS
While the technology to provide bunker gear that is wholly fluorine-free and effectively moisture-resistant is not yet commercially available, Bunker Gear Specialists can offer the next best thing. All our bunker gear is semi-non-fluorinated and treated with fluorine only in the essential areas. Shop our range now or contact us for a free quote.
The ACS and IAFF have focused on removing these chemicals from turnout gear, while enhancing and contributing to discussions surrounding PFAS and eliminating them for good.