California Wildfires: How AFFF Firefighting Foam Can Pollute Drinking Water

In case you haven’t been following the news, California experienced a series of violent wildfires in 2020. In response, firefighters across the state have been working tirelessly to combat the fierce blazes and bring hope to the wildfire survivors and worried residents. However, there’s a growing concern that AFFF firefighting foams may be fueling one of the state’s biggest water contamination problems: PFAS.  

As you may know, PFAS chemicals are incredibly toxic to human health, even causing various cancers in some cases. Thankfully, California state officials have started outlining plans to restrict or eliminate AFFF as of 2022. But until they follow through on these plans and amend some of the state’s outdated fire regulations, PFAS from AFFF will continue wreak havoc on California’s drinking water and residents’ health.

That’s why today, we’re examining the following areas of concern regarding PFAS in AFFF and drinking water contamination:

  • the link between AFFF and PFAS in drinking water,
  • the dangers of PFAS in AFFF to drinking water,
  • the adverse health effects of PFAS chemicals, and
  • the best method to keep PFAS out of your drinking water.

Let’s start by defining AFFF.

What is AFFF?

In a nutshell, AFFF, aka “Aqueous Film Forming Foam,” is a synthetic foam designed to combat fires caused by flammable liquids (Class B fires). Still, there are cases where firefighters use it for wildfires and structural fires (Class A fires), for example, when a Class A fire affects a gas station, an oil can, or anywhere flammable liquid is used, stored, or manufactured.

Traditionally, AFFF is created by combining foaming agents with fluorinated PFAS surfactants. Once firefighters spray the foam, it forms an aqueous film that deprives the fire of oxygen, quickly extinguishing the flame and preventing reignition.

AFFF is an extremely effective fire-extinguishing agent, to the point where military personnel and firefighters have nicknamed it the “rock star” of firefighting foams. However, this type of firefighting foam has a massive downside: the PFAS chemicals used to create it may contaminate drinking water, waterways, and soil in nearby communities.

How AFFF Can Pollute Drinking Water

Firefighters need to be able to put out fires rapidly anywhere large amounts of flammable materials are present. Because of this, AFFF is employed in many (if not all) fire-suppression systems. Because of this, the perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) contained in the AFFF often end up polluting rivers, streams, and water systems with toxic chemicals.

As we mentioned earlier, fluorinated PFAS surfactants are used to produce AFFF. When firefighters use firefighting foam containing PFAS to extinguish wildfires, the PFAS compounds can seep into the ground and bind to the soil. Then, every time it rains, the rainwater can wash the chemicals into rivers, streams, and underground aquifers that supply fresh water to homes, businesses, and municipal water systems.

Common AFFF Water Contamination Sources

AFFF is mainly used to put out fires in areas where flammable liquids are manufactured, used, or stored, such as oil refineries, storage facilities, airfields, airports, gas stations, oil cans, etc. Whenever a fire occurs at any of these locations, AFFF is the preferred fire-suppression foam for firefighters. When AFFF is used to extinguish these fires, the PFAS chemicals may seep underground and pollute nearby water sources, then go on to harm residents and the environment.

Who are at risk?

When it comes to PFAS in water due to AFFF, the people at risk are mostly those who live in surrounding areas where AFFF is used frequently. For example, water systems that rely on rivers, streams, and other water sources polluted by PFAS-containing AFFF may distribute PFAS-contaminated water to residents (adults and children) near and far. Also, private wells owners and their families residing close to fire-prone areas may be exposed to PFAS through AFFF. Of course, we cannot forget firefighters who are constantly exposed to PFAS in fighting gear, military personnel, and anyone else who comes in contact with these dangerous products.

What is PFAS?

We’ve mentioned “PFAS” quite a few times above, but you probably have no idea of what it is. No problem! The acronym PFAS stands for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. It is a large family of nearly 5,000 human-made chemicals used in various commercial goods and products since the 1940’s – think firefighting foam, non-stick pans, and water-repellents. PFAS tends to be thermally stable, so much that it can repel grease, water, and stains. Besides that, some PFAS compounds, also termed as “fluorosurfactants,” have been the key ingredient in “film-forming” and Class B firefighting foams.

PFAS chemicals are made by combining carbon and fluorine atoms in an almost unbreakable bond. While this powerful bond makes the chemicals useful in a wide variety of products, such as firefighting foams, clothing, and non-stick, water, stain, and grease-resistant items, it makes PFAS compounds difficult to break down or remove. As a result, PFAS chemicals can persist in the environment and the human body for long periods, hence why they’re dubbed “forever chemicals.”

Fortunately, due to strict regulatory standards, U.S. manufacturers voluntarily cut back on PFAS since the early 2000s. But because products containing these chemicals have been manufactured in the country for decades, PFOA and PFOS remain widespread in the environment. Also, manufacturers from other countries still produce and export PFAS-containing products into the U.S. And let’s not forget that PFAS firefighting foams are also a major source of these toxic chemicals.

Potential Health Problems Associated with PFAS

PFAS chemicals are bio-accumulative. That means they gradually build up in humans. And since they’re hard to break down, they can stay in the body for a very long period. A study published in 2017 shows that PFAS is present in 97% of human blood samples. Other studies reveal that these compounds are linked to multiple health problems in humans.

Studies link the chemicals to several adverse health problems, even at low doses (measured in parts per trillion). Some of these health effects include:

  • thyroid problems
  • delayed puberty
  • liver malfunction
  • elevated cholesterol
  • hormonal interference
  • increased risk of asthma
  • kidney and testicular cancer
  • congenital disabilities in newborns and reduced immune system responses in children
  • early menopause in women and pregnancy-induced hypertension/preeclampsia

There’s no doubt that these potential health effects may be frightening for most people. However, we must note that they’re not conclusive due to insufficient scientific and medical evidence.

How do I know if my drinking water contains PFAS?

The Environmental Working Group estimates that 7.5 million Californians have toxic non-polymeric PFAS in their drinking water at a level of at least 1 part per trillion, with much of this contamination linked to the use of firefighting foam. But how do you know if there’s PFAS in your drinking water at home? Continue reading to find out.

1.     Check your latest water quality report.

Water providers are required to share information about their water quality with the public for safety reasons. Hence, you can do a quick Google search for your area’s latest water quality report or request a copy from your local water provider. A water quality report usually includes useful information about the quality of your drinking water, such as what tests have been done, what levels of contaminants have been discovered, and whether the levels detected violate any drinking water standards. The report may also include information on your drinking water source, the meaning of technical terms, and the water supplier.

2.   Check EWG’s Tap Water Database.

The EWG Tap Water Database is an excellent place to find useful information about your town’s water quality. It displays the water utility’s details, such as its location, the estimated number of people served, the period for which the data is available, and the source (whether groundwater or surface water). Most importantly, the tool will tell you the total number of contaminants detected in the water supply and how many of them exceed EWG health guidelines. So, enter your ZIP code and see if there are any PFAS contaminants in your water supply.

3.   Order a PFAS water test.

Lab water testing is a reliable way to discover traces of harmful pollutants in your water source. This testing method is more thorough than other types in that it can detect contaminants that would likely be “overlooked” with different techniques. Some labs may send you the sample container in a cooler with an instructions guide. This method can be a bit costly, but it will tell you whether your water contains PFAS and sometimes the specific PFAS present.

How to Protect Your Drinking Water from PFAS Contamination

Once you’ve determined if your water contains PFAS, the next step is to purchase and install a premium filtration system to remove the chemicals from your water. Even if your water doesn’t contain PFAS, there is a host of other wildfire contaminants that may be lurking in your water.

Now, since the water filter on your refrigerator door or the pitcher-style filter you keep inside the fridge won’t do much to prevent PFAS from ending up in your drinking glass, you’ll need a reliable alternative.

Whole-house carbon filtration systems are the best lines of defense against PFAS and other contaminants in drinking water, achieving near-complete removal of PFAS chemicals.

These systems target and safely remove contaminant groups like:

  • heavy metals (lead, copper, aluminum, iron, arsenic, etc.)
  • bacteria and virus (E. coli, cryptosporidium, giardia and lamblia, and others)
  • pesticides
  • herbicides
  • toxic chemicals (chlorine, chloramine, TTHM, haloacetic acids)
  • PFAS (PFOA, PFOS, and others)
  • and many more

If you decide to purchase a whole-house carbon filtration system, it’s best to go with an efficient, reliable, and cost-effective unit like the Springwell CF1.

The CF1 is a high-performance system that treats all the water entering your home, significantly reducing PFAS levels. That means only clean, PFAS-free, filtered water will be flowing to your kitchen, bathrooms, water-using appliances, and other areas with a water outlet.

The CF1 system is also extremely easy to install and set up. Plus, it only requires minimal maintenance to upkeep its incredible filtration performance. Its jaw-dropping flow rate of 9 GPM is another remarkable feature, ensuring you won’t experience any drop in water pressure while the system is operating.

When you purchase the CF1 or any other system from our unique line of water filtering systems, you get a six-month money-back guarantee, a lifetime warranty, and free shipping. We also offer financing with reasonable monthly payments for those who cannot cover the system’s full cost upfront.

If you need any more information about the CF1, don’t hesitate to contact us.

Final Thoughts

As you know by now, California has been experiencing a string of wildfires. While we’re happy firefighters have been doing their part to help control the blazes, the same firefighting foam aiding their efforts may be contributing to the state’s widespread PFAS water contamination problem. PFAS chemicals can be toxic to human health, potentially causing health problems from asthma and congenital disabilities to liver malfunction, hormonal inference, and increased risk of certain cancers. Luckily, you can test for these toxic chemicals in your drinking water. And if needs be, you can then invest in a reliable water filtration system, like the Springwell CF1, to remove most PFAS content and other harmful contaminants from your drinking water.