3-6 Polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) awareness
This resource does not replace the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) and its regulations and should not be used as or considered legal advice. Health and safety inspectors apply these laws based on the facts they find in the workplace.
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Developed in the 1930’s, the fluorinated family of chemical compounds can repel water and grease. These properties led to their use in aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) and bunker gear. Nicknamed “forever chemicals”, fluorinated substances do not break down within the environment or when absorbed into the body. There are thousands of fluorinated chemicals in use today.
The most common trade names found in firefighting products are:
- PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate or C-8)
- PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid)
- fluorinated surfactant
These chemicals belong to the larger class of fluorochemicals referred to as per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFASs) which contain carbon atoms that are completely saturated by fluorine.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), research suggests exposure to some PFAS might result in harmful health outcomes, including:
- increased cholesterol levels
- immune system effects
The International Agency on Research for Cancer (IARC) monograph on PFOA concludes that “Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B).""
Research is ongoing.
Actions for employers
Employers must provide information, instruction and supervision to a worker to protect the health or safety of the worker.
Employers should use a risk/benefit analysis and the hierarchy of controls to determine if products containing PFAS can either be:
- have their use reduced
Aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF)
Consider the following, with respect to AFFF:
- transition to PFAS free foams where appropriate
- use appropriate PPE (such as eye protection, gloves and respiratory protection) when handling foam containing PFAS, per safety data sheets and manufacturer’s recommendations
- evaluate the situation before applying fluorinated foams, and minimize exposure of personnel
PFAS is found in materials used to make water repellent layers of bunker gear. To reduce potential exposure, consider the following precautions:
- transition to PFAS-free products as they become available
- limit bunker gear use to situations where it is required to be worn as PPE (for example, do not use bunker gear during public education activities and consider whether bunker gear is necessary during routine medical calls or physical fitness activities)
- appropriately dispose of bunker gear to prevent the repurposing of bunker gear for personal products (for example: bags)
- store bunker gear appropriately as per the firefighter’s cancer prevention checklist
- routinely clean bunker gear storage and cleaning areas as per the firefighter’s cancer prevention checklist
- use appropriate PPE (such as N95 respirator and rubber gloves) when handling contaminated bunker gear
Applicable regulations and acts
- Occupational Health and Safety Act
- clause 25(2)(a) for providing information and instruction to a worker
- clause 25(2)(d) for making workers aware of hazards
- clause 25(2)(h) for taking every precaution reasonable to protect workers
Read NFPA 1971 Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting for information on minimum levels of protection from thermal, physical, environmental, and bloodborne pathogen hazards encountered during structural and proximity fire fighting operations.
Read NFPA 1851 Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting for information on the selection, care, and maintenance of fire fighting protective ensembles to reduce health and safety risks associated with improper maintenance, contamination, or damage.
Read about Aqueous film-forming foam and the Prohibition of Certain Toxic Substances Regulations on the Government of Canada website.
Read Toxic substances list: PFOS to find out about the Government of Canada’s work related to PFOS.