How Toxic Are Fire-Fighting Chemicals and Dispersants? : Exclusive Renegade Health Article

Monday Aug 27 | BY |
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To save homes, fire fighters often use fire retardants and foams, but these contain chemicals that can have toxic effects on the environment.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the 2.01 million acres burned so far this year by wildfires was the fourth highest on record. As a whole, the contiguous U.S. had its record warmest and 28th driest July on record in 2012.

The warm and dry weather created ideal wildfire conditions across a large portion of the country. The Long Draw Fire burned nearly 560,000 acres during July, the largest to impact Oregon since the 1840s. On July 1st, there were 57 large wildfires active across the nation. Colorado’s 2012 wildfire season has been called “unprecedented,” and one of the worst fire seasons on record.

There’s no doubt that our firefighters have been challenged this year to control all these wildfires, particularly in the efforts to help protect homes. Some of the tools used to fight these fires, however—particularly the chemical fire-fighting foams and retardants—may cause lasting effects more concerning than the fires themselves.

Concerns Raised by Different Organizations
On June 26, 2012, Reuters reported that air tankers were dropping fire retardant on the Waldo Canyon fire in the hope of protecting hundreds of homes along a highway at the mountain’s edge. But what exactly is in these fire retardants, and how do they affect the area after the fire has gone?

A report from the Australian Bushfire Conference in July 1999 noted that, “A summary of the data available suggests that there is significant potential for damage to terrestrial vegetation from fire retardants, and to aquatic ecosystems from fire fighting foams.” They noted that sometimes the use of these chemicals was appropriate when the costs of traditional fire suppression methods were high, but that they should be avoided when possible.

A 2003 article entitled “Effects of Fire Retardants on Vegetation in Eastern Australian Healthlands: A Preliminary Investigation,” noted that not all fire retardants have been subject to rigorous environmental and health studies. The Victoria’s State Chemistry Laboratory advised that the claims of risk to public health were not scientifically well founded.

Composition of Fire-Fighting Chemicals
According to the U.S. Forest Service, long-term retardants contain about 85 percent water, 10 percent fertilizer, and 5 percent minor ingredients like colorants, thickeners, corrosion inhibitors, stabilizers, and bactericides. Foams are more than 99 percent water, with the remaining one percent containing surfactants (wetting agents), foaming agents, corrosion inhibitors, and dispersants.

The agency states that all approved wild land fire chemicals have been tested and meet specific requirements with regard to mammalian toxicity, but adds that, “As with any chemical substance, a small percentage of the population may have an allergy or unusual sensitivity to a specific chemical that will not be detected during the evaluation process.”

They also state that the fertilizer in long-term retardants may cause a temporary “burn” on exposed vegetation and in some cases, even kill the plants. The fertilizer can also cause nitrate poisoning in animals that have consumed hay or other forage crops contaminated by the retardant during firefighting operations.

Further, the fertilizer contains ammonia and phosphate or sulfate ions, and studies show that a single retardant drop directly into a stream may cause a sufficient ammonia concentration in the water to be lethal to fish and other aquatic organisms. The severity of the effects depends on the volume of the retardant that enters the water.

Further Risks of Fire-Fighting Foams
The Forest Service goes on to state that foam concentrates are strong detergents, and can be extremely drying. Exposure to the skin can cause mild to severe chapping. All foam concentrates are mildly to severely irritating to the eyes, while the surfactants in water are toxic to fish, interfering with their ability to absorb oxygen from the water, which causes them to suffocate.

The Forest Service concludes that it’s preferable not to drop any of these materials along any body of water, but that this concern must be balanced with the possible other impacts to the environment from the fire itself.

Alternatives Available
It seems that some companies are starting to heed the environmental concerns. A company called “Fire Service Plus” has created “FireAde 2000,” a new firefighting foam that claims to use only water-based and food-grade ingredients to protect the integrity of the environment. On May 17, 2012, EcoFriendlyNews reported that Jeff Denholm, a former commercial diver and Merchant Marine, had created an environmentally sustainable and non-toxic fire retardant to be used by the U.S. Forest Service when fighting fires.

The report explained that Denholm’s product is 100% biodegradable, effective, eco friendly, and affordable, and that his product was scheduled to hit the market this summer.

The progress is likely to be slower than we’d like, but it does seem like the tide is changing in favor of environmentally friendly options. Particularly as more studies come to light showing the toxicity of some of the chemicals used, it’s likely that public demand will drive innovation. Meanwhile, the best solution might be to reduce the risk of fire in the first place, which demands better management of our forests and wild lands.

What do you think might be done about chemical fire fighting retardants and foams?

* * *

“State of the Climate Wildfires, July 2012,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Updated August 8, 2012,

Keith Coffman, “Update 1—Firefighters battle to save homes from huge Colorado fire,” Reuters, June 26, 2012,

Robyn Adams and Dianne Simmons, “Ecological Effects of Fire Fighting Foams and Retardants,” Conference Proceedings, Australian Bushfire Conference, Albury, July 1999,

T. L. Bell, “Effects of Fire Retardants of Vegetation in Eastern Australian Heathlands: A Preliminary Investigation,” November 2003,

“Wildland Fire Chemical Products Toxicity and Environmental Concerns General Information,” U.S. Forest Service,


“Eco Friendly Options for Fire Fighters,” EcoFriendlyNews, May 17, 2012,

Kevin Gianni

Kevin Gianni is a health author, activist and blogger. He started seriously researching personal and preventative natural health therapies in 2002 when he was struck with the reality that cancer ran deep in his family and if he didn’t change the way he was living — he might go down that same path. Since then, he’s written and edited 6 books on the subject of natural health, diet and fitness. During this time, he’s constantly been humbled by what experts claim they know and what actually is true. This has led him to experiment with many diets and protocols — including vegan, raw food, fasting, medical treatments and more — to find out what is myth and what really works in the real world.

Kevin has also traveled around the world searching for the best protocols, foods, medicines and clinics around and bringing them to the readers of his blog — which is one of the most widely read natural health blogs in the world with hundreds of thousands of visitors a month from over 150 countries around the world.


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  1. Ian says:

    Hi Kev,
    Interesting article though you may want to check the spelling in the first paragraph, not something you want to do near flames!

  2. I have to admit, I was a bit nervous to read this article. Do I really want to know how dangerous these chemicals are since I can’t control if they are sprayed on a nearby fire? I often think about it though and just try to boost up on the zeolite and chlorella. Also, related to your latest article, I try to feel good know matter what the circumstances. Maybe this can help offer some protection against chemical sprays.

  3. Rick Nickeson says:

    a few things that i have read about fireade.

    Tyndall AFB Test

    FireAde 2000 AFFF LP contained a fluorinated surfactant, similar to what is found in 3M AFFF-

    Tyndall AFB Test

    The first toxicity screen performed with FireAde 2000 had an unusual reaction with fish. After the fish had died the remains turned to a gel-like consistency. This result had never been observed before with any other agent. Additional analysis of the foam concentrate showed that the pH ( 12.4) was higher than the neutral pH indicated by the manufacturer. The manufacturer sent a second sample for testing and the first batch was sent back the manufacturer for analysis. The second batch of FireAde 2000 was closer to neutral; HOWEVER, this did not significantly improve the LC50 (74 to 92 ppm), indicating that the high level of toxicity was not due to pH alone.– ( look at page 5)

  4. barry says:

    the more of this kind of material i see, the more i’m convinced that stephen hawking is correct: the only realistic, long-term hope for mankind is to move into space; or wait-out this stage of human development, & hope for salvation by future artificial intelligence–super computers, & super technologies

  5. Marie Jardine says:

    I live in a rural Nevada ghost town.My community is about 30 Seniors and 6 people under 60. My county is insisting our community use the firehouse as a meeting place. I am concerned that the chemicals present in the trucks and on the equipment are a serious health endangerment to these Seniors. How do I find out what chemicals are present? Some of these residents are already on oxygen, are there hazards that would interact with oxygen? Would the de-oxygenation agents affect their health? What chemicals specifically would affect health and health issues?

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