Reliability and performace – a dated argument?

Published:  11 April, 2008

Gary McDowall of ABC MacIntosh and Thierry Bluteau of Bio-Ex foams remind readers that fluorosurfactants are still classified as organohalogens and as such remain prohibited under the UK’s Groundwater Regulations. What’s more, they believe that today’s new generation of fluorine-free foams put paid to the argument that reliability and performance can only be achieved through the use of film-forming foam.

It would be true to say that the debate about the use of non fluorinated foams in preference to fluorinated or film forming foams, has been helped in no small measure by the three seminars held at the Reebok Stadium, Bolton, UK between 2002 and 2007. Following the first of these foam seminars in 2002, it became clear that there was a scientific argument developing between the chemists and the lobbyists employed by the manufacturers of the fluorosurfactants – used in film forming foams – and those chemists and academics who had a specific interest in the environmental impact of fluorosurfactants used generally throughout industry.

Over the last five years it has been interesting to note the significantly increased level of study being undertaken on this subject, clearly evident at the latest seminar held in September 2007. It could be argued that this heightened interest in the subject was sparked by Europe’s largest post-war fire at Buncefield, UK in December 2005. This in itself would not be surprising given that the application of film-forming foam during the fire caused irreparable damage to ground water in the Buncefield area. So whilst the manufacturers of fluorosurfactants have claimed in the past that film-forming foams are efficient and with high performance, safety and reliability as their driving concern, there is no doubting the serious detrimental impact these types of products have on our most precious and natural resources.

During this type of debate it is important to keep things in perspective. The use of fluorosurfactants relates to many different industries and countless areas of our day-to-day lives. For example, they are used in the manufacture of textiles such as carpets and clothing, they are used in packaging products. In terms of volume on a global scale the use of fluorosurfactants in firefighting foams is relatively small in comparison with these other industries. One could ask - why are scientists so concerned? The simple answer is that breakdown products from fluorosurfactants can be found everywhere in our environment today resulting from partial biodegradation in the environment because they cannot be completely destroyed by nature alone.
These breakdown products are extremely stable which makes them very persistent, and the aftermath of Buncefield is testament to that very fact, as the groundwater in that area will be contaminated for many years to come.

In terms of using firefighting foams, the means of application is one that results potentially in widespread environmental dispersion. Unless these fire waters can be contained and treated they will inevitably cause environmental damage. Yes, Buncefield was a fuel storage facility with primary and secondary bunds and containment designed to hold resulting liquids such as fuels, water and foam. These bunds failed. The fire and rescue service do not have the luxury of bunds or containment areas when they fight fire on a day to day basis, so the application of a film-forming foam has major implications for their operations.

When discussing the environmental impact of foams, it is interesting to note that fluorosurfactant manufacturers consistently fail to mention that these substances and their degradation products are organohalogen substances and are classified as List 1 substances under the Groundwater Regulations 1998. Based on the persistence of organohalogens alone, they are prohibited from entering groundwater. These regulations are based on a European Directive and applies to all Member States.
Manufacturers of film-forming foams have tried to keep the debate focused on the differences between types of fluorosurfactants and their resulting breakdown products. The scientific evidence clearly shows that fluorosurfactants manufactured today do not contain or degrade to PFOS. However, these fluorosurfactants have a breakdown product known as fluorotelomer sulphonate (6:2 FtS) and still remain classified as an organohalogen as is PFOS. The similarity is not the breakdown product itself but that the outcome of its use remains prohibited under the Groundwater Regulations. This fact has never been disputed, although it has been avoided.

Let us revisit the claim of efficiency and performance, safety and reliability as being a driving concern for consideration when using film-forming foams. This is now a dated argument. There is at least one manufacturer of fluorosurfactant free foams (FFF) that can now make the same claim. Ecopol is a fluorosurfactant-free foam which is alcohol resistant, it can be used at 3% on hydrocarbon and polar solvent fuels. This product can also be used at low medium and high expansion applications. Ecopol has recently performed to the highest levels on hydrocarbon using salt water at LASTFIRE, achieving 100 points (maximum performance) on both the ‘aspirated’ and ‘systems’ tests. The manufacturer Bio-Ex has proved that industry does have options that are both performance and environmentally driven. More importantly, Ecopol is not an organohalogen, is not persistent and does not breach the Groundwater Regulations. Perhaps the next foam seminar will prove that healthy debate can have a positive outcome for both industry and the environment.

A CD containing the presentations of the last three Reebok foam conferences is available free of charge to readers of Industrial Fire Journal. For your copy, email the editor on: Stocks are limited so CDs will be issued on a first-come, first-served basis.

Caption: Gary McDowall

  • Operation Florian

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