The Global AFFF Contamination Problem And Its Impact On Zoning And Land Use

21 June 2024 | General

Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF) contamination has become a critical environmental and public health issue globally, especially with ongoing AFFF lawsuits.

The presence of per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), particularly Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS), in AFFF, is a predominant risk at contaminated sites. Effective management of contaminated sites requires thorough risk assessment, consistent regulatory frameworks, and adaptive planning strategies.

As the global community tackles AFFF contamination through lawsuits and regulatory changes, land use planners must navigate these complexities. The latter group needs to protect public health and ensure sustainable development.

This blog post explores how AFFF contamination impacts zoning and land use planning, considering environmental risks and regulatory challenges.

The Global AFFF Contamination Issue

AFFF has been considered in firefighting for its capacity to extinguish liquid fires (flammable). However, paved firefighting training areas and airfields worldwide are heavily impacted by this practice. PFAS has been detected globally, even in remote areas far from their original point sources.

These substances have been found in soil, rainwater, and various environmental media, often exceeding relevant screening levels.

In England, the Environment Agency has identified PFAS in surface and groundwater, estuarine sediments, and limited samples of mammals. Landfills containing PFAS waste, wastewater treatment plants, and agricultural lands treated with sewage sludge are also sources of contamination.

Further, they are also present in materials, including soil, sediment, waste, wood, tarmac, bricks, glass, concrete, carpets and coatings.

Due to environmental and health repercussions, like AFFF foam cancer, the consideration of firefighting foam has come under scrutiny. PFOS, a prime element in AFFF, is a persistent organic pollutant known for its resistance to environmental degradation. The toxicity of this pollutant leads to long-lasting contamination issues.

The AFFF lawsuit highlights widespread contamination and the need for remediation, significantly influencing how land is zoned and used.

These legal battles emphasize broader concerns and drive regulatory changes to increase cleanup funding, reports TorHoerman Law. As a result, land use planners must stay informed about legal developments to manage contaminated sites and plan effectively.

Off-site Migration of PFAS

One of the major concerns with AFFF contamination is its off-site migration. These chemicals are highly mobile in groundwater and can travel considerable distances from the original contamination source. The transport mechanisms for PFAS include runoff surface water, atmospheric transport and infiltration into the subsurface.

Factors influencing PFAS movement include its chain length and ionic state. It also considers site-specific characteristics like soil type, groundwater flow, and presence of co-contaminants.

This off-site migration of PFAS poses threats, impacting application sites, surrounding residential zones, agricultural lands, and water bodies.

The spread of PFAS contamination necessitates comprehensive land use planning to mitigate these risks and protect public health. The development of field-scale, in situ screening technologies helps assess AFFF source zones at fire training and storage sites. Spectral-induced polarization (SIP) may offer sensitivity to AFFF-based pollution.

The resultant is due to the sorption of non-fluorinated surfactants and zwitterionic/cationic PFAS compounds mineral surfaces.

Research affirms that SIP can detect PFAS concentrations in contaminated soils, from 2 to 30,000 parts per billion (ppb). Laboratory and field-based SIP transects across AFFF source zones showed a significant linear relationship between SIP response and PFAS concentration at undisturbed sites.

Hence, SIP can provide a cost-effective method to map contamination variations, guiding soil sampling and minimizing missed PFAS hotspots.

Assessing the Risks of PFAS

Numerous sites around the world have been identified as contaminated with PFAS due to AFFF use. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has mapped over 3,000 locations in the United States with known PFAS contamination.

Evaluating the risks posed by PFAS contamination involves conventional assessment approaches. It also includes soil and water sampling, risk assessment models, and health impact studies.

Moreover, the assessment, investigation, and removal of PFAS necessitate a multi-disciplinary team due to its fate, transport, and toxicity. Specialists in Land Condition (SiLC) are particularly well-suited to marshal the necessary competencies in soil, process engineering, geochemistry, and toxicology.

These professionals, often chartered through organizations like the IES, have demonstrated the knowledge needed to manage land conditions.

These assessments along with relevant expertise are needed for making informed decisions about land use and zoning.

By understanding the extent and severity of contamination, planners can implement strategies to manage contaminated sites and protect communities.

Conflicting PFAS Thresholds and Regulatory Challenges

One of the significant challenges in managing PFAS contamination is the lack of consistent regulatory thresholds. Different countries and even different states may have varying limits for acceptable PFAS levels in soil and water.

These conflicting thresholds complicate risk-based decision-making, as land use planners must navigate a complex regulatory landscape.

This inconsistency can lead to delays and uncertainty in land use planning, affecting development and community safety.

Regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have started setting advisory levels for PFAS in drinking water, although these levels vary.

Internationally, countries like Australia and Canada have also begun addressing PFAS contamination through regulatory frameworks and remediation efforts.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is AFFF used?

Aqueous Film-Forming Foam, or AFFF, is a type of foam firefighting agent used to put out flammable liquid fires. Developed by the US Navy in the 1960s, AFFF has been widely adopted. Its potential lies in its capacity to create an aqueous film.

The layering rapidly spreads across the surface of burning liquids and cuts off the oxygen supply.

How is human health affected by PFOS?

One of the ingredients in AFFF is PFOS. This toxic chemical has been connected to harmful health outcomes like liver damage, cancer, and immune system disruption.

Long-term exposure is especially dangerous because it remains in both the human body and the environment.

How does PFAS contamination affect the environment?

PFAS contamination impacts the environment due to its pervasive and persistent nature. These chemicals, used in different consumer products, do not easily break down and remain in the environment for long periods. PFAS contamination affects soil, water, and air.

Besides, it poses a threat to wildlife and human health by disrupting ecosystems and entering the food chain.

How do PFAS contamination levels affect the value of real estate?

PFAS contamination can reduce real estate values due to its associated legal and financial risks. Contaminated sites may require extensive clean-up efforts, which can be both time-consuming and costly, deterring potential buyers.

Ongoing lawsuits and changes to regulation, further complicate real estate transactions.

Even a single fire suppression event using AFFF can result in long-term PFAS discharges. This long-term contamination complicates land use planning, as areas thought to be safe may later be found to be contaminated. Hence, it needs re-evaluation and potential rezoning.

Remediation and land use requirements can be met by adhering to federal, state, and local laws with strict enforcement mechanisms.


  • Danielle Stone

    She has been writing professionally for 8 years, with articles published in various print and online publications. She is an avid researcher and strives to bring her readers the most up-to-date information and insights on the topics she covers. Danielle is also an expert on home renovation, interior design and construction, and she loves helping homeowners turn their dreams into realities. When she’s not writing or editing, Danielle enjoys spending time with her family, gardening and exploring nature.

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