PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ report
A recent Environmental Protection Association (EPA) report, prepared by Sweco Ireland, shows the scale of the challenge when it comes to addressing the use of fire-fighting foams that contain PFAS ‘forever chemicals in Ireland.
What are forever chemicals?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are synthetic chemicals commonly used in firefighting foams. A range of sectors, including Fire Authorities, around the world use them to help tackle high-hazard, Class-B fires arising from flammable liquids or gases such as oil, gasoline or jet fuel.
While effective, PFAS compounds are also problematic, as they present cause for major environmental and public health concerns. The powerful bonds between the elements that make up the compounds mean that they don’t break down once they are released into natural ecosystems – a PFAS pollution ‘side effect’ that has earned them the name ‘forever chemicals’.
Some of these PFAS substances have also been classified as Persistent Organic Pollutants ‘POPs’ and are regulated to avoid or minimise their use. For example, restrictions are already in place on the storage and use to perfluorooctane sulphonic acid (PFOS) and these were extended to perfluorooctanoic acid PFOA. Further requirements are likely to extend to other PFAS compounds in the near future. This will have significant implications for users across Ireland.
While non-PFAS (i.e. fluorine free) firefighting foams do exist, in many cases switching over to them will require extensive decontamination of existing equipment, re-commissioning and testing of existing fire suppression systems with new mixtures and in some cases, the purchase of new equipment.
Another challenge is posed by the fact that it is currently not always clear which foam products contain PFAS and which do not, as manufacturers rarely publish exhaustive formulations. As a result, many users undertake their own analysis to find out if the products they are using contain PFAS compounds.
To understand the scale of the issue in Ireland, Sweco Ireland has published a key report for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), reviewing a number of sectors within the Republic of Ireland to determine if they use potentially environmentally harmful PFAS-containing firefighting foams.
The key objectives of the report were to understand the quantities of PFAS-containing foams being stored and used by a broad range of operators, where they have been used historically and which suppliers are providing the foams. These included Fire Services, EPA licensed sites, petrochemical and fuel storage facilities, airports, military and port facilities. This involved developing an extensive database of firefighting foam users, which the EPA will use in future outreach campaigns.
In practice, this saw Sweco survey more than 200 different stakeholder organisations and individuals across the relevant sectors, including local authority fire services, as well as the utilities, construction, aviation and marine sectors.
The impacts of the proposed outright ban on PFAS in firefighting foams by the European Chemical Agency will be wide-ranging and affect thousands of businesses across Europe in many different sectors.
At Sweco, we have the expertise and experience to help clients identify exposures to the risk and advise on transitioning to fluorine-free alternatives – we can also draw on the vast expertise of our Scandinavian colleagues who work at the forefront of environmental risk-mitigation and sustainability.
Maeve English Technical director in Sweco’s environment team