Blog By: R. Peter Sells, MBA, V.P. & Chief Training Officer
Prevent, Protect, Extinguish. Those are our guiding principles at FireRein. We set out to develop products that:
- Prevent injuries, illness, and the incidence of fire.
- Protect structures and the environment from the effects of fire and firefighting.
- Extinguish fires.
The easiest of these was the extinguishment of fires. As a clever species, we’ve known how to start and stop fires for thousands of years. The difficult part for FireRein was figuring out how to do all three – prevent, protect, extinguish – with one product that is effective, affordable, and environmentally benign. We did it and we continue to do it.
Right about now you’re asking yourself… what does “environmentally benign” mean? Stay tuned.
Our original intent was to produce a firefighting Hydrogel that could extinguish Class A fires; ordinary combustibles, such as: buildings, vehicles, and vegetation. Our Eco-Gel™ is incredibly effective for that purpose. At the same time, we discovered that it is equally effective at extinguishing Class B flammable liquid fires and keeping them from re-igniting. This was our entry into the century-old industry of petrochemical firefighting; an incredible challenge for a tiny Canadian start-up, owned and operated by a team of firefighters and local entrepreneurs, putting us in competition with some very big players in a huge global marketplace. That marketplace has undergone radical change over the last few years, and with change comes opportunity.
The change is coming from outside the industry, due to concerns over the toxicity and environmental impact of firefighting foams containing PFAS. Some definitions:
PFAS: Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a family of synthetic chemicals that are found in a wide range of consumer and industrial products. There are nearly 5,000 different types of PFAS, some of which have been more widely used and studied than others. Two PFAS of particular concern due to their presence in firefighting foam concentrates are PFOA and PFOS.
PFOA: Perfluorooctanoic acid – C8HF15O2 – is a perfluorinated carboxylic acid used as an industrial surfactant in chemical processes and as a material feedstock. PFOA is a C8 chemical, meaning it has a chain of 8 carbon atoms in its molecular structure.
PFOS: Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid – C8HF17O3S – is also a synthetic C8 fluorosurfactant and global pollutant. PFOS was the key ingredient in numerous fabric protectors and stain repellents. It was added to Annex B of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in May 2009.
The problem for the manufacturers of foam concentrates containing these C8 PFAS chemicals was that their very effective products were found to be associated with human toxicity and environmental contamination. Once governments, military organizations, and other major customers banned the use of these products, and lawsuits began over contamination of farmers’ wells, the writing was on the wall for the end of C8 chemistry. Three choices for these companies were now available: reduction, substitution, or elimination.
Reduction of the C8 PFAS content to a safe level would be a good strategy, but how does one determine what “safe” means in this context? If the industry self-determines an arbitrary benchmark at a lower percentage, and agrees that anything below that percentage is considered “Fluorine Free”, is that good enough? It is worth noting here that under US FDA food labelling standards, “sugar-free” and “fat-free” both mean less than 0.5 g (grams) per serving. Free does not mean zero, so what does it mean in the case of a bio-accumulative chemical that will build up in groundwater, fish, vegetation, and firefighters? Ask yourself, would you buy ice cream for your kids that was labelled 99.5% non-toxic?
Substitution of another surfactant for the C8 PFAS would also be a good strategy, provided that the new chemical did not have the same inherent problems. Manufacturers have created new lines of foam concentrates with C6 chemistry. These products contain fluorinated surfactants based on chains of 6 carbon atoms instead of 8. They can be honestly said to be free of PFOA and PFOS, wherein the “O” for “octo” indicates a C8 chain, but where are the studies to show that they are safe? Existing data shows that shorter-chain compounds (C6 and below) have a lower potential for toxicity and bioaccumulation, but lower does not equate to zero.
Elimination of fluorosurfactants is the only strategy which can legitimately result in an environmentally benign firefighting product (there’s that term again). This is the strategy FireRein employed from the beginning of our company. We set out to develop a firefighting Hydrogel that is 100% bio-based, and in fact is verified as such by UL Environment and the US Department of Agriculture. Eco-Gel™, as the name suggests, is not a foam – it is a Hydrogel. It behaves differently from foams, but is applied using standard firefighting equipment. There is no risk of toxicity or bioaccumulation when using a product composed of food-grade ingredients.
That’s what “environmentally benign” means. Benign to the environment. We’re not playing word games here. Benign means “does not threaten health or life”. It is an unambiguous term in a world filled with some very loose descriptors. “Environmentally friendly” means whatever you want it to mean. If a box of laundry detergent is now designed in such a way as to use less cardboard, and is labelled as “new environmentally friendly packaging”, it is still the same detergent. “Green” is equally wishy-washy, unless it is describing a colour. It’s a strange world when words like safe and friendly give cause for suspicion. At FireRein, we’ve taken the high road on this without compromise, and with apologies to the late Jim Henson, it’s not easy being green.
Prevent, Protect, Extinguish. You can prevent illness and environmental contamination with proper choices in firefighting agents and methods. Things are changing for the fire service. We’ve been through this before. Fire proximity suits developed in the 1930s originally contained asbestos. Now we know that wasn’t a good idea.