Technology aims to save firefighters from ‘forever chemicals’

Wakeshaw, North Carolina — Irony is dissonant for America’s firefighters. For decades, the chemical foam they sprayed in fires to protect others was a hidden threat to them.

Foam concentrates come in five-gallon drums containing polyfluoroalkyl substances (also known as PFAS), which are man-made chemicals that are water-resistant and virtually indestructible and dangerous if inhaled or absorbed into the body .

The Environmental Protection Agency limits safe thresholds for exposure to the two most common types of PFOS (PFOA and PFOS) to near zero, or less than one part per trillion. But the firefighting foam, known as AFFF, has a concentration of 10 million parts per trillion, higher than the EPA’s guidance, according to Amy Dindal, PFAS program manager at the scientific nonprofit Battelle. A thousand times more. Promising technology developed to eliminate the problem.

In North Carolina, the nonprofit is dealing with the Waxhaw Volunteer Fire Department’s foam inventory, some of which Fire Chief Gregory Sharpe estimates may be 20 years old.

In its first commercial application, Battelle’s technology uses a process called supercritical water oxidation, which involves heat, pressure, and oxidizing agents to eliminate threats in the carbon-fluorine bonds of PFAS.

“For 10 seconds through our reactor, it will break the CF bond,” Tyndall said.

Waxhaw crews are also testing “clean” firefighting foams made from organics. Manufacturer GreenFire says it’s non-toxic and PFAS-free. The company has been collecting AFFF foam from North Carolina fire departments to use new technology to destroy PFAS in its inventory.

“I don’t want to get cancer and I don’t want my family to get cancer,” Sharp said.

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