Water is the first thing most people think of for putting out a fire. And for many types of fires, it’s been doing that successfully for a long time.

But water doesn’t work for all fires, most notably, oil fires. In fact, it can actually spread the fire, since oil and water don’t mix. That means spraying water on an oil fire can push the burning oil farther away and expand the fire.

As an example, if you’ve ever seen photos or videos of fire on a river or the ocean (think of burning water around a burning ship at sea), you’ll know oil is involved.

This is just as serious at home, since kitchen fires may involve cooking oil.

Enter the need for firefighting foams, which were specifically developed to put out oil fires.

Even a number of fire extinguishers use foam (or some type of chemical fire retardent).

If you already knew that foam was used for oil fires, are you aware of the controversy surrounding its use?


Chemical-based firefighting foam has been used for decades because it works. It was invented by a Russian engineer and chemist in 1902.

Firefighting foam creates a blanket that cuts off fuel from the oxygen it needs to burn. To further suppress a fire, others chemicals have been added by manufacturers to put out oil fires even faster.

The problems is that certain chemicals in the foam can be inhaled or absorbed into the body via the skin and accumulate in the human body for long periods of time. And these chemicals may cause various types of health issues.

Furthermore, firefighting foam and its chemicals can spread through the air and water and contaminate local drinking water sources.

In other words, some of these foams are hazards to personal health and the environment.

Organizations like The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the American Cancer Society (ACS) have noted that certain of these chemicals may be linked to cancer in firefighters, most notably kidney, testicular, and pancreatic cancer.

Veteran and retired firefighters who were regularly exposed to the foam are at risk.

As a result, the firefighting foam industry has moved away from using foam with these chemicals and manufacturers have developed firefighting foams free of the hazardous foams.


Even though most fire departments no longer use foams with the hazardous chemicals, each firefighter and fire department should practice safety protocols, such as:

  • Fire stations should replace older foam stocks with solutions free of the risky chemicals
  • Firefighters should contain and manage chemical and water runoff
  • Firefighters should wear personal protective equipment (PPE) and a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) whenever handling hazardous chemicals.
  • Properly remove and bag contaminated PPE prior to transporting.
  • Use cleaning wipes on face, neck and hands immediately after exposure.
  • Clean contaminated PPE and SCBA before its next use.
  • Shower within one hour of returning to the station or home.

Manufacturers of firefighting foams claim newer formulations have less impact on the environment and meet international approvals for firefighting requirements. Nevertheless, environmental concerns persist regarding firefighting foams and research on the subject continues.

It’s in every firefighter’s best interests to protect him or herself from exposure to firefighting foam.

Firefighting Foam Risks and Protection
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