Perfluorinated Compounds – Awesome or Awful?

I remember the event like it was yesterday. I was in the lab, rushing to complete my last experiment before the end of the day.  All of a sudden I smelled smoke and a small flame erupted on the bench.

I had recently completed my yearly fire extinguisher training, so I was more than prepared to handle the benchtop blaze. I ran down the hall, looking for the nearest fire extinguisher, yelling “I’ve got this!”

After finding the tool I was seeking, I grabbed it off the wall, dropped it on the floor when its weight caught me off-guard, picked it back up and tore into the lab. I put the heavy extinguisher on the floor and unclipped the hose.  As I aimed at the base of the fire, I gripped the handle and squeezed.  Instead of hearing the reassuring whoosh of the fire extinguisher, I heard only the roar of the flames.  I picked up the fire extinguisher, gave it a shake, and set it roughly on the floor.  Gripping the handle again, I squeezed as hard as I could.  Again, nothing happened.  I could feel the heat from the flames getting hotter, so I made one last valiant attempt before abandoning my efforts and escaping through the nearest exit.

As I stood in the parking lot, watching the small army of firefighters tackle the flames that were threatening to engulf the building, two thoughts crossed my mind:

“I desperately need a refresher course in proper fire extinguisher use.”
“PFCs really came to my rescue today.”

Fire fighters sometimes use foam when tackling large blazes, both to suppress the fire and to prevent it from re-igniting. The foam is designed with a variety of compounds that control its physical and chemical properties.  Foam generation itself is due to one or more surfactants which, historically, has consisted of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs).  While these compounds are well-suited for suppressing and knocking down fires, their use in fire-fighting foams allows them to make their way into our soil and groundwater.

To ensure that we are consuming safe drinking water, proper testing and treatment must take place. Water treatment must be guided with accurate testing and data reporting.  The U.S. EPA has established guidelines for proper extraction and analysis of perfluorinated compounds in drinking water (Method 537) and an example of that method execution can be found in this application note.

And for those interested in the lesson I learned from my debut as a firefighter: always remember to pull the safety pin out of the fire extinguisher before trying to use it!

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