Working safety with PFAS containing aqueous film-forming firefighting foams
There are health concerns about the use, handling and storage of PFAS containing aqueous film forming foams (AFFF).
This page provides information to current and ex-workers on the potential health concerns regarding the use, handling and storage of PFAS containing aqueous film forming foams (AFFF) and their contaminants.
Aqueous film forming foams (AFFF)
AFFF are water-based fire-fighting foam products used to suppress flammable liquid fires. Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS are the key components in a majority of AFFF. This class of chemical substances include perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). The use of PFOS and PFOA containing AFFF for firefighting is declining and some users voluntarily replaced their use with other alternatives due to concerns on environmental and potential health effects.
Human health and PFAS
There are animal studies that suggest PFAS used in AFFF causes adverse health outcomes in animals. However, humans and animals react differently to PFAS and not all the effects observed in rats and mice occur in humans. Some of the animal results are inconsistent with those health effects found in humans. Therefore, their implications to human health cannot be concluded. Scientific evidence to assess health effects of PFAS in humans is currently limited and more research is needed to better understand whether PFAS is associated with any disease outcomes in humans. As these chemicals tends to remain in the body for long periods of time and animal studies have suggested they produce adverse health outcomes in animals, it is recommended that as a precaution, human exposure to PFAS should be minimised.
How workers reduce the risk of exposure to PFAS
Workers who may potentially be exposed to PFAS must follow safe work procedures and recommendations given in the Safety Data Sheets (SDS). Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is a low level of control and should not be applied as a primary control without due consideration of other options.
When working with PFAS containing firefighting foams, a minimum level of personal protective clothing and equipment (PPE) including: rubber gloves, P2 respirators, duty wear/overalls, splash proof goggles and closed foot wear must be worn at all times. In Firefighting situations, full structural firefighting uniform must also be worn.
Workers who undertaking remediation tasks in AFFF contaminated sites may encounter in addition to PFAS, other known and unknown hazards at any stage. It is therefore important to conduct and review control measures through all stages of assessment, remediation and management. Workers at contaminated sites may need to use a range of PPE according to the type and level of contamination. These include boots, respirators, gloves, and chemical protective clothing. The highest order of control should always be employed.
Given the persistence of PFOS and PFOA in the environment and within the body, it is important to avoid incidental ingestion. Workers who work in or near PFAS contaminated sites are advised not to use groundwater, bore water, surface water or home grown produce from those areas.
What to do if workers are concerned about PFAS exposure
The presence of PFAS in blood serum does not necessarily mean that there will be adverse health effects and it cannot be conclusively determined if it is from exposure at work. Therefore, health monitoring for PFAS is currently not recommended for workers.
At presence, blood testing does not add further value in informing clinical management because of the above reasons. Anyone concerned about previous exposure or believe they may have been exposed to high levels of PFAS at work should first seek advice from an occupational physician as a precautionary measure.