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Cleaning Up the Toxins After the Fire


The South Carolina Fire Academy goes through its paces. Credit: Ryan Adrian King

By Venkata Kambala

Toxic chemicals in firefighting foam accumulate in animal and human tissue, causing cancer and neonatal mortality. New technology is now keeping it from accumulating in the environment.

Venkata Kambala is a research fellow with CRC CARE and the Centre for Environmental Risk Assessment and Remediation (CERAR) at the University of South Australia.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) have long been used in fire-fighting foam because they improve the effectiveness of the surfactants that enable the foam to smother fire. PFCs are also widely used in the treatment of fabrics and leather, in paper products, food packaging and insecticides. They are relatively inert and heat-stable, which has made them attractive to manufacturers.

However, evidence has also been accumulating about the toxicity of PFCs, and how these chemicals move into ecosystems and up food chains to accumulate in animal tissue. For example, the commonly used PFC perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) accumulates in the liver and blood, and has been linked to bladder cancer, liver cancer, and developmental and reproductive toxicity, including neonatal mortality. There is a growing global concern over the risks to human health and the environment from its use on fires at tens of thousands of emergency and training sites worldwide over the past half century.

Threat to People and Wildlife
Similar effects have been noted in animals, with PFOS suspected of causing cancer, physical development delays, endocrine disruption and neonatal mortality. In 2006, Olivero-Verbel and colleagues at the University of Cartagena, Columbia, examined the tissue of pelicans living in Cartagena Bay, Colombia, an area that receives both industrial and...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.