Is fire fighting foam policy in parts of Australia about to get much tougher?

Published:  07 January, 2015

Comment sought by 9th of February on second draft of Management of Firefighting Foam Policy.

The draft policy has been prepared by the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection in conjunction with the Western Australia Department of Environment Regulation.

The first draft of the policy was released for stakeholder comment in early 2014. The second draft includes issues raised by the first, and takes into account further research.

According to the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, if implemented, the policy for both states would be practically the same, with differences primarily in references to specific state legislative and regulatory requirements.

The evidence-based draft has been compiled with input from a wide range of Australian and overseas regulatory agencies, researchers and experts. It has been hailed widely as the most the most comprehensive and thoroughly researched policy document of its type to date.

The draft policy – which is fully referenced and supported with scientific evidence – outlines the requirements and expectations for the handling, transport, storage, use, release, waste treatment, disposal and environmental protection measures relevant to the use of fire fighting foam.

Of particular concern regarding foams, says the draft, is the growing evidence that fluorinated organic compounds commonly used in some Class B foams pose ‘significant risks to the environment through their persistence, bioaccumulation potential and toxicity.’

Outlined are a number of considerations that end users must take into account when choosing and procuring foam:

• composition of the foam and appropriate effectiveness for the intended application

• types and quantities of concentrate to be held on site

• potential volume of firewater that could be generated during an incident

• ability to manage and contain spills and firewater on site

• measures to prevent release of contaminants to soils, groundwater, waterways and air

• facility location and proximity to environmentally sensitive areas

• circumstances under which an intended or unintended release might occur

• pathways for foam and other incident contaminants to be released to the environment

• potential PBT and BOD impacts on the local and wider environmental values

• on-site and off-site treatment and disposal of wastewater and contaminated materials

• remediation of contaminated soils, waterways and groundwater

• training, maintenance and testing needs and requirements.

That a prime consideration when choosing a foam is its effectiveness for the intended application in terms of providing adequate levels of performance,  safety and property protection, is recognised by the draft policy.

Foams that do meet appropriate performance standards must be compared in terms of a net environmental benefit analysis ‘to select the optimal combination that also best addresses the relevant environmental protection standards and overall best practice.’

Foam must be assessed in term of the foam’s properties relative to:

• Environmental persistence of the compounds in their formulation and any breakdown products.

• Biopersistence, bioaccumulation, bioconcentration and biomagnification potential.

• Toxicity (both acute and chronic effects).

• Biochemical oxygen demand and biodegradability.

The draft policy divides fire fighting foams into two parts – fluorine-free and fluorinated.

Fluorine-free foams

Fluorine-free fire fighting foams do not escape the tough requirements outlined by the draft policy, and management; containment; and protective measures and procedures ‘must be fully assessed’. Potential impacts from acute toxicity, biochemical oxygen demand and biodegradability characteristics should be taken into account.

However, disposal of small quantities (eg equivalent to 500 litres or less of concentrate) of (non contaminated) fluorine-free foam is acceptable eg irrigation onto adjacent land; holding in on-site ponds or drains for 28 days to degrade; pumping out to sewer or wastewater plant.

Fluorinated foams

The draft policy says that users must be aware of the composition of their foam, and it makes a distinction between fluorinated foams with a 6-carbon chain (so-called ‘C6 foams’); and those with longer chains, which include PFOS, PFOA, and 8:2 and higher fluorotelomers.

As regards the latter longer chain length foams, PFOS must no longer be used, and foam containing PFOA or PFOA precursors ‘must be withdrawn from service as soon as practicable.’

The draft policy says that C6 foams can be used ‘if it is found to be the only viable option, after fire fighting effectiveness, health and safety risks, environmental protection and property protection characteristics have all be appropriately considered’. It then sets out the following stringent requirements:

• The foam must be C6 purity compliant foam (according to policy definitions).

• No releases directly to the environment (eg to unsealed ground, soakage pits, waterways or uncontrolled drains).

• All releases must be fully contained on site.

• Containment measures such as bunds and ponds must be controlled, impervious and must not allow firewater, wastewater, runoff and other wastes to be released to the environment (eg to soils, groundwater, waterways stormwater, etc.).

• All firewater, wastewater, runoff and other wastes must be disposed of as regulated waste to a facility authorised to accept such wastes.

The draft policy highlights that all wastes containing fluorinated organic compounds – including C6 purity-compliant foam – must be disposed through a facility that is licensed to take regulated wastes.

Training foams

The draft policy makes no distinction between fire fighting foams and training foams, but it says that training foams must not contain any fluorinated compounds – with one exception. Where there is a requirement to train with the operational foam, the foam must be fully C6 purity-compliant. Any runoff containing fluorinated compounds must be contained and disposed as regular waste.

Fire extinguishers

The draft policy acknowledges that currently hand-held and mobile plant foam extinguishers mainly contain C8 fluorine-containing AFFF, and that ‘there is a high probability’ that this foam is discharged directly into the environment with no control of dispersal by users. It therefore sets out the following restrictions:

• Foam concentrate must not have a concentration of PFOS or PFOA in it higher than limits set by the policy.

• Foam concentrate must not have a concentration of PFOA precursors or higher homologues in it higher than the limits set by the policy (unless there is no other fluorine-free or C6 purity compliant foam certified for the particular use).

• All discharges of foam containing fluorinated organic compounds and the associated contaminated water, soils and other materials must be collected and contained for proper disposal as regulated waste whether discharges were from operational use or from testing and maintenance activities.

• Disposal of foams and wastewater containing fluorinated organic compounds must not be by discharge to the ground, drains or waterways.

• Disposal of foams and wastewater containing fluorinated organic compounds must not be to sewer or general wastewater treatment facilities. Disposal must only be to facilities capable of properly disposing of such wastes and the facility operator is made aware that the wastes contain fluorinated organic compounds.

Environmental acceptability

Environmental acceptability of foam is comprehensively outlined by the draft policy in terms of:

• Persistence in the environment.

• Biopersistence, bioconcentration, bioaccumulation and biomagnification potential.

• Toxicity (both acute and chronic impacts).

• Biochemical oxygen demand and biodegradability.

The draft policy calls for assessments to be undertaken for the combined formulation of all the ingredients, as intended for final use, and not just the principal ingredients or selected ingredients in isolation. The onus is on the manufacturer and supplier to undertake testing and provide results to the user in the SDS of the foam.


According to the draft, all foam users are expected to achieve compliance ‘as soon as is reasonably practicable’ from the date of approval of the policy. Full compliance should be achieved within two years of approval date. Users unable to achieve full compliance are advised to apply for approval of an implementation plan as per the Environmental Protection Plan 1994.


Explanatory Notes: Managing Firefighting Foam Policy

The draft policy includes over 45 pages of evidence-based explanatory notes that list the current state of knowledge with regard to the environmental issues associated with fire fighting foams, and which should be read in conjunction with the draft policy. Here are some highlights:

‘In attempting to properly assess the risks inherent in their situation and to make a confident and informed choice when selecting an appropriate system and foam, users are often significantly hampered by a lack of information, incomplete knowledge and inadequate and/or inaccurate advice in one or more relevant areas.’

‘All fire fighting foams are of concern if they are released to the environment; there is no such thing as a completely “environmentally friendly” foam as espoused in some marketing brochures.’

‘The casual reader could be forgiven for thinking that PFOS and PFOA are the only two compounds of concern. It is very important, however, to realise that there are thousands of possible fluorinated organic compounds, and of those in use in some fire fighting foams only about 50 have been publicly identified so far with a similar or greater number of others currently remaining unidentified.’

‘Significant problems have arisen for foam users, environmental regulators and incident responders in that acute ecological toxicity test data and information reported in foam product information and safety data sheets are rarely adequate, or are even completely absent, making it difficult or impossible for the user to make an informed judgement or decision in regard to a balanced environmental risk assessment for response planning or incident management.’

‘Fire fighting foams are often used in situations where containment may be difficult, so it is likely that there will be releases to the environment and dispersal under a variety of circumstances. This could occur on a large or small scale during incidents and normal operational activities. Where persistent toxic compounds are present, care must be taken to ensure that the likely environmental risks and impacts are fully understood and such products are only used with appropriate containment and controls in place.’

‘From an environmental standpoint it is highly misleading to describe fluorinated organic compounds as “degradable” which implies in general parlance to the non-specialist end-user that the product fully degrades and therefore it might be assumed that there are no residual persistent end-compounds of concern. This is not the case.

‘The “degradation” of fluorinated organic compounds under environmental conditions only refers to the partial degradation or loss of the non-fluorinated carbons (usually a C2 dimethylene group) from some compounds and also, under specific conditions, limited partial de-fluorination adjacent to non-fluorinated carbon atoms, ultimately (and possibly through intermediate steps) leaving behind a persistent per-fluorinated compound.’

‘Many comparisons have been made between the toxicity of fluorinated and fluorine-free foams. However, such comparisons are almost always in regards to short-term acute toxicity with rarely any mention of long-term chronic toxicity. When considering the potential adverse effects of toxicity the short-term toxicity characteristics of a product is only one aspect that should be considered and is not directly relatable to long-term toxicity.’

‘The overall potential for a fire fighting foam to cause adverse environmental effects needs to be assessed in terms of its Persistence-Bioaccumulation-Toxicity (PBT) profile. This needs to take into account both the short-term and long-term impacts of the final formulation. Each component needs to be weighted appropriately in arriving at the overall evaluation.’

‘Given that the formulations of fire fighting foams are by commercial necessity trade secrets, this puts the onus on the manufacturers to review the compounds in their formulations, including all possible breakdown products, and provide the relevant information to the user even if the compounds are only identified in a generic way in SDS and product information, eg “Contains fluorinated organic compounds known to persist in the environment and are suspected to bioaccumulate in living organisms – Do not discharge to the environment”.’

‘A large-scale release of contaminated firewater from a large hydrocarbon storage facility incident, a hydrocarbon shipping tanker fire or even cumulative smaller releases to waterways and the marine environment would potentially impact those values not only by direct contamination of seafood resources and aquaculture stocks but also by generating the perception of contamination which is very likely to severely affect public opinion and local and overseas market purchases of local seafood produce.

For example, Queensland hosts commercial fisheries to the annual value about $436 million with aquaculture valued at $103 million and recreational fisheries valued at about $73 million. In Moreton Bay alone, adjacent to Brisbane, the value of commercial and recreational fisheries to Queensland’s economy is between $44 million and $54 million per year. Various marine oil spills and port dredging activities over the last decade, involving less persistent, and even undefined contaminants, compared to those associated with some fire fighting foams, are examples where strong public and industry concerns have been expressed regarding pollution impacts on economic, amenity, cultural and recreational values.

If the pollution included indefinitely persistent and well recognised pollutants, such as fluorinated organic compounds, the damage to that industry, and to the recreational fishing sector and the state’s reputation through actual or perceived contamination, might then extend for years to decades raising issues of who would be responsible for compensation for that period.

Where a large-scale incident involved non-persistent, biodegradable contaminants including organohalogen-free foam and hydrocarbons the extent of damage would be limited to largely acceptable short-term acute impacts from which the environment and resource values would recover with no risk of long-term harm or the perception of persistent pollution.’

‘For occupationally exposed users the clear correlations with possible adverse health effects, biotransformation in the body, long body-residence times and lack of definitive information on the behaviour and un-researched effects of the diversity of (largely unknown) compounds and combinations mean that special care needs to be taken to prevent exposure to fluorinated organic compounds as part of day-to-day operations as well as during incidents where responders or workers unfamiliar with the issue may be unwittingly exposed.’

‘Some industry operators are under the impression that once the Fire Brigade takes control of an incident that they are no longer responsible for the outcomes. That is not the case; the operator must have taken every reasonable and practicable measure to properly manage any foreseeable incident taking into account what scale and types of resources may be required to effectively deal with the worst-case incident.’

‘Fire brigades should not have on hand or intend to use any fire fighting foam containing fluorinated organic compounds that is intended for application on an area where it cannot be fully contained and the wastes appropriately collected and disposed of later. For example, roadside fuel spills or rural fire brigade use on bushfires.’

‘The legacy systems in place at existing large facilities almost certainly hold stock of foams such as fluoroprotein foams (FFFP) that are dependent on long-chain fluorotelomer (8:2Ft) PFOA precursor compounds for their effectiveness. These foams are not acceptable in the medium or long term as they effectively represent a potential release of PFOA to the environment (waterways, soils, groundwater, and atmosphere). In the meantime they must be fully contained in completely impervious bunding. Legacy systems may also contain or be contaminated with PFOS-containing foams.’

‘A misconception that has arisen from time-to-time is the mistaken belief that foam used on a body of water can be contained and recovered in the same way as an oil spill by oil-recovery booms floating on the water surface. This is not the case, fire fighting foams are water soluble and while there may be some foam bubbles floating on the water surface the vast majority of the foam becomes dissolved in the water column.’

‘Where such a direct release to the aquatic environment is unavoidable the use of fire fighting foams containing fluorinated organic compounds of any sort is not acceptable due to its persistence in the environment.’

‘The practice of releasing fluorinated foam wastes to the ground during discharge tests of mobile plant systems is not acceptable and a breach of environmental regulations. That is, it is a direct, wilful and entirely avoidable release to the environment of a variety of long-chain fluorinated compounds that are known to be indefinitely-persistent and highly dispersible pollutants with the potential for health and environmental impacts though releases to bodies of water, groundwater, air or via contaminated soils and dust. They also represent a human health risk.’

‘Similarly, biodegradable fluorine-free foams must not be released in a way that they are likely to cause environmental harm, such as by BOD impacts and acute toxicity effects if allowed to enter a body of water or groundwater. However, fully biodegradable foams with no persistent toxic contaminants may be able to be appropriately treated and disposed of on-site or at local waste treatment and disposal facilities. Unavoidable minor releases to ground are acceptable with no clean-up necessary provided that there is no significant potential for contaminants to affect bodies of water or groundwater.’

‘Fire fighting foam formulations that use fluorinated organic compounds are very diverse in their (largely unknown) formulations. The Management of Firefighting Foam Policy does not preclude the use of all fluorinated fire fighting foams, however, there are restrictions on the purity of fluorinated compounds that can be used and the measures that must be in place to contain and manage releases. This is in line with the general intent of the U.S. EPA PFOA Stewardship Program which set the initial baseline principles and goals underpinning the direction to be taken for management of compounds of particular concern. This now needs to be extended in the light of the better understanding of fluorinated organic compounds that has emerged since then.’

‘The OECD is expected to take over the US EPA PFOA Stewardship Program function and is considering how best to develop, facilitate and promote national and international product stewardship programmes and regulatory approaches for perfluorinated chemicals based on their existing work programmes and in association with other participating organizations of the IOMC.’

‘The use of new generation fluorinated foams that have in their formulations (or will have) shorter chain fluorotelomers (eg 6:2 Ft) needs to be qualified as there still needs to be appropriate management as there are a range of concerns, some that have arisen or have been better elucidated since the 2006 US EPA PFOA Stewardship Program commenced.’

‘Siloxane surfactants have recently emerged as a promising alternative for formulation of halogen-free AFFF where the siloxane group in various carbohydrate siloxane compounds forms the hydrophobic part of the surfactant. However, associated publications refer to “environmentally-sound high-performance siloxane surfactants” and “environmentally friendly” without any reference to, or elucidation of, the basis for stating that that the proposed surfactants are acceptable in terms of even the primary issues of persistence, biodegradability, BOD, COD, bioaccumulation or acute and chronic toxicity.’

‘The siloxane compounds most commonly in general use have been identified as variously being environmentally persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic, having the potential to cause health issues such as endocrine disruption, liver and lung injury and have the potential to cause ecological harm.’

‘Given the intense focus on the problems and risks identified with foams that use fluorinated organic compounds such as PFOS and PFOA in their formulations much discussion has been polarised in terms of “fluorinated” versus “fluorine-free”.

While this polarisation may be valid in terms of the differences in the underlying fire fighting mechanisms between the main foam types, the underlying issues from an environmental perspective, beyond the acute short-term toxicity and BOD effects applicable to all types of foam, are more correctly about the use and impacts of foams with:

• Persistent toxic compounds with potential to cause long-term adverse impacts.

• Non-persistent toxic compounds with short-term adverse environmental impacts.

It is quite conceivable that a fluorine-free, fire fighting foam could have long-term adverse impacts from the inclusion of persistent compounds or persistent breakdown products which may be toxic.’

‘The general claim that has been circulating that “fluorine-free foams do not work” in terms of fire fighting performance is disingenuous. The same high performance certification standards are applied to the testing for all foams regardless of their composition with rigorous tests carried out by independent certification organisations to the agreed standards. Foam must be selected according to the particular application. Many fluorine-free foams are acknowledged as “meeting the toughest amongst the fire fighting standards” and exceed film-forming fluorinated foam performance in various circumstances. Similarly the performance of AFFF is variable with some aqueous film forming foams (AFFF) failing to form aqueous films under some circumstances.

Even a brief review has found that various fluorine-free foams from a range of manufacturers meet the independent certifications for all the major fire fighting applications including LAST Fire Test, EN1568(1-4), DEF (Aust)5706, ICAO Level B&C, AS5062 and reputedly US Mil Spec/UK Defence Spec in terms of performance but not in terms of the legacy requirement in Mil Spec to have a specified fluorine content (which may be under review).’

‘The general marketing claim that all fluorine-free foams are “10 times more toxic” (than fluorinated foam) is also without foundation, or at best is a claim that is out-of-date and refers only to acute short-term toxicity. A brief review of acute toxicity across foam types (where there is sufficient information to do so in SDS) finds similar relative toxicity and overlap in values such as LD50 and LC50 depending on manufacturer and foam type. The potential health, safety and environmental effects of each foam need to be assessed in terms of not only their acute short term toxicity (the most basic and often-quoted measure) but also the potential for long-term chronic toxicity effects, as well as environmental persistence, which have so far rarely been considered.

‘A further argument levelled against fluorine-free foams, again based on no consistent, verifiable evidence has been that so much more will need to be applied and more frequently in an incident. Even if it were to be necessary to use higher concentrations or larger amounts (on very infrequent events), the resulting short-term, but recoverable and naturally remediating damage is preferable to permanent pollution events that have no prospect for recovery or break down of persistent contaminants and represent a long-term threat to the environment.

‘In comparison to fluorine-free foam use, the proposed alternative pure C6 short-chain fluorinated compounds reportedly may require greater concentrations of the fluorinated organics in their formulas to achieve the same fire fighting performance so it could be said that this may result in larger amounts of persistent organic contaminants being released than for legacy foams. This could therefore negate the lower (short-term) toxicity and bioaccumulation characteristics of the proposed alternative shorter-chain compounds and result in health and environmental exposures for compounds where little is known of their behaviour and effects.’

  • Operation Florian

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