Fluorine: is the future really free?

Published:  18 September, 2014

Simon Webb reports from the Angus Fire Foam Seminar held at the Manchester United stadium, Old Trafford, in Manchester (UK) on 3-4 June 2014.

The main aim of the seminar was to launch Angus’ new Integrity range of foam products, which the company believes would be a ‘foam game changer’ for industry. It would also address the current environmental and fire fighting issues facing foam users in the fire industry. The new range of Integrity products are based on existing products with the crucial difference that PFOA has been replaced with C6 fluorotelomers.

The programme was spread over two days with speakers from Angus, the Environment Agency, DuPont and Falck RPI presenting on the first day, followed by fire test demonstrations on the second day. The event had the feel of the Reebok Foam Attack seminars, but with a focus on the re-branded Angus products.

Presentations

Paul Williams, Managing Director of Angus, started the proceedings with some background on Angus, including the recent management buyout. The separation from US ownership meant that Angus had regained the capability to set its own destiny (and products). Including Angus employees and their agents, Mr Williams estimated seminar attendance at 105 persons, and he commented that by the end of the seminar any confusion over fluorine-free foams would be dispelled – and the demonstrations next day would serve as proof.

Martin Hough, National Sales Manager for Angus, presented further detail around the composition of the C6 foams, with slides highlighting that the percentage of fluorocarbons present in Integrity was so small as to not present an environmental issue. He emphasised the company’s responsible characteristics, adding that Angus’ experience in testing fluorine-free foams showed that they just did not work. Mr Hough quoted from research reports and testing to support his argument that fluorine-containing foams were more effective and did not damage the environment. There were issues around defining risk, viscosity, the need for aspirating equipment for fluorine-free foams, compatibility and system approvals. He concluded his presentation by saying that one foam couldn’t do everything – it was a question of choosing the right foam for the right application.

The most interesting presentation – for me – came from Matt Gable of the UK Environment Agency. Unfortunately it was also the most confusing. Mr Gable fulfils a number of advisory roles in England, including advising the Chief Fire Officers Association and local authority fire services. His intention was to set out the environmental impact of foams, the legal position and training. The Environment Agency is a government agency that enforces locally the legal framework and policy that has been set by UK government. It is a response organisation with a policy and regulatory remit.

Mr Gable covered the issues around oxygen depletion, PFOS, PFOA, biodegradation and persistence. He was very clear that the operational imperative was that the most effective foam for the job should be selected. However, as was pointed out by a delegate during questions, this conflicted with advice contained in the Fire and Rescue Service Manual on Environmental Protection, which stated: ‘FRSs are encouraged to consider the use of these (fluorosurfactant-free) products where they can satisfy themselves that the fire performance meets their needs.’

Talking about the legal position regarding offences for pollution, Mr Gable doubted that any fire service would be prosecuted where foam had been used in life-saving situations. However, during the later questions session, that advice was questioned in the context of courts having the final decision, as well as the fact that action could be taken around negligence during the planning for a response.

Mr Gable emphasised that the use of foam in training required appropriate management, and that their use should be discussed with local water companies in order to reach prior agreement on procedure, and to ensure any discharge consents were in place.

The next speaker was Ronald Bock, the Environmental Risk Manager for DuPont, currently the leading worldwide manufacturer of fluorosurfactants.

Mr Bock gave a very interesting presentation dealing with fluorosurfactants in foam, including the USA Environmental Protection Agency’s Voluntary Stewardship programme for reducing PFOA, as well as other regulatory controls taking place abroad, for example joint work being carried out by Norway and Sweden.

Mr Bock acknowledged that there was no full research and data on C6 at present, and he was careful to only go so far as saying that fluorine-free foams did not perform as well as AFFFs. However, he did not clarify whether that was in terms of environmental, fire fighting or burn-back performance.

David Plant of Angus then introduced delegates to a case study involving a petrol leak at Banksmeadow in New South Wales, Australia. The foam application had ensured that there were no flammable vapours to ignite. The site responders were able to use less foam than the local authority fire and rescue service that had attended as part of the emergency response plan, and which had used recently-selected fluorine-free foam.

Dr Niall Ramsden of Falck RPI then presented on Standards for Foam Testing, a thorough overview of the key components for foam testing. He emphasised the need for fit-for-purpose tests, safety margins, fire tests in critical areas, relevant application rates, vapour suppression, burnback, repeatability, and evaluation criteria, re-emphasising that different uses may require different foams. He also made the point that for some industries – such as aviation – the aim was to control the fire rather than total extinguishment.

Dr Ramsden touched on the changes within performance that he was noting as a result of the move from C8 to C6, such as batch variations and production location variations. He also made the point that manufacturers did not necessarily know what was best for the users in terms of specification. Regarding future research, he talked about proportioning viscous foam, overlaying of infrared spectra of samples, fluorosurfactant testing, and integrity assurance.

The first day was wound up by a joint presentation by Paul Williams and David Plant with an overview of Integrity Foams, and how Angus wished to be regarded as a trusted, consistent, level headed and respected company with integrity – hence the name for the foam range. Mr Plant then focused on Angus’ emergency/back-up service and its effectiveness; the performance of the Integrity range of foams; its warranty; and an offer for anyone to visit the manufacturing facilities.

During the question-and-answer session, issues raised covered foam selection, the Environment Agency guidance, liabilities for polluting, fluorine in foams, differences between C8 and the new C6-based Integrity range.

Test demonstrations

The second day of the seminar was devoted to witnessing four fire tests designed to highlight the different fire extinguishing capabilities of Angus Integrity foams against fluorine-free alternatives. The demonstrations were based on ICAO and EN tests, and Angus emphasised that they should only be considered as demonstrations.

The seminar and demonstrations were an interesting means for Angus to launch the new Integrity range of fire fighting foams. As a past delegate of the Reebok Foam Attack conferences, the similarity in format proved to me that imitation was indeed the sincerest form of flattery.

All the presentations and the facilities were to a very high standard. However, with any type of marketing activity the delegates had to judge what they heard and saw. What I found particularly interesting were the few areas that were not covered, for example the Water Framework Directive and its Groundwater Daughter Directive (and its effects on potential pollutants), and the subject of independent testing of foams. The inconsistency in the Environment Agency guidance was, for me, the biggest issue to come out of the seminar.

About the author: Simon Webb

Simon Webb is semi-retired and has found that his experience and knowledge allows him to assist and advise on a range of fire and rescue subjects. Formerly he was the Rescue and Fire Fighting (RFF) Technical Specialist with the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Previous to his seven years with the CAA he had a 30-year career within the fire and rescue service culminating as the Head of Operational Practices within Her Majesty’s Fire Service Inspectorate.

He holds a Masters degree in Civil Emergency Management and was a member of the Institution of Fire Engineers and a Chartered Member of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

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