Posted in:

Why Is The Air Force Removing AFFF from It’s Hangar Fire Safety Systems?

© by Unsplash

Aqueous Film Forming Foam, or AFFF, represents a significant advancement in firefighting technology, particularly within the high-stakes environment of military operations. Originally developed in the 1960s, AFFF has been instrumental in quickly extinguishing intense fuel-based fires. 

AFFF creates a blanket that starves the fire of oxygen while simultaneously cooling the fuel surfaces. This has made it the go-to option for hangar fire suppression in the U.S. Air Force for decades. 

The U.S. Air Force’s decision to phase out AFFF did not come lightly. It emerged from an accumulation of scientific research, environmental considerations, and an evolving understanding of the long-term impact of firefighting foam usage. Let’s explore further.

Regulatory and Policy Shifts

The landscape of environmental regulation and safety protocols has been undergoing significant changes with regard to AFFF. Despite its efficacy, the substance fell under this scrutiny due to the persistent nature of its key components: perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). 

These compounds have been linked to environmental degradation and health issues, catalyzing a reexamination of their widespread use.

In the United States, environmental regulations have tightened as scientific understanding of the impacts of PFAS has grown.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), alongside other federal agencies, has released advisories and is moving toward setting enforceable limits for PFAS in the environment. This shift in policy comes after decades of PFAS compounds accumulating in the environment, largely unchecked due to the lack of comprehensive regulation historically.

Globally, the narrative is similar. Many countries and international bodies are reconsidering the use of firefighting foams containing PFAS. 

The European Union, for instance, has been proactive, proposing restrictions and even bans on PFAS in firefighting foams under its chemical regulation framework, REACH. This reflects a worldwide trend of moving towards more environmentally responsible firefighting methods that do not compromise the health of ecosystems or populations.

The Health Risks of AFFF Can’t Be Ignored

It is estimated that out of the 1.1 million volunteer and career firefighters in the United States, approximately 20% may develop cancer due to exposure to AFFF, which contains toxic chemicals like PFOS and PFOA. 

Research involving more than 1,000 servicemen from the Air Force indicates a potential association between contact with firefighting foam that contains PFAS chemicals and an elevated likelihood of testicular cancer. This health controversy has also led to several AFFF lawsuit cases being filed.

According to TorHoerman Law, defendants include companies like 3M, DuPont, and Chemours. 

Unfortunately, cancer is just one side effect. AFFF exposure is also said to cause several other health issues. For women, exposure can contribute to pregnancy-related complications, such as preterm birth and low birth weight. Furthermore, exposure during pregnancy can potentially harm the developing fetus.

Exposure to PFAS chemicals found in AFFF also has the potential to suppress the immune system and cause the “bioaccumulation” of chemicals in the body. 

How Easy Will It Be To Fill The Gap Left By An AFFF Ban?

Researchers are working diligently to identify and develop formulations that can match or exceed the effectiveness of AFFF. Several promising candidates have emerged, including fluorine-free foams that rely on surfactants that break down more readily in the environment. 

These alternatives use a combination of different chemicals to replicate the film-forming qualities that have made AFFF so effective against hydrocarbon fuel fires. 

For instance, some newer foams create a polymer membrane over the fuel surface, preventing re-ignition. This works much like AFFF but without the persistence of PFAS in the environment.

Comparisons between AFFF and its potential replacements also take into account factors such as storage stability and compatibility with existing fire suppression systems. 

It is not enough for a new product to suppress fires effectively; it must also integrate seamlessly into current operations. Moreover, it needs to achieve this without necessitating extensive modifications to equipment or infrastructure. How this challenge will be handled is yet to be seen. There isn’t much time left as well, because AFFF needs to be phased out by 2024.


The U.S. Air Force’s proactive measure to discontinue the use of Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) in hangar fire suppression systems is a commendable step. It moves us toward reconciling the necessity of firefighting but also keeps in mind the importance of environmental stewardship and public health protection. 

The phase-out of AFFF marks the end of an era and ushers in a new chapter in fire suppression technology. A chapter that promises greater harmony with the environment and heightened safety for those on the front lines of fire response.