In Wisconsin, the Kenosha Fire Department stopped using a firefighting foam that contained PFAS chemicals known to contaminate ground water.1 The decision had been made in the fall of 2019. These types of foams are usually used in fighting fuel or oil fires and contain PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals.
We just did it because it’s the right thing to do,’ McNeely, division chief of training at the Kenosha Fire Department reported. ‘The department wanted to address worries about the possible contamination of groundwater and drinking water and to protect firefighters from a possible cancer risk.’ Their city attorney stated, ‘We wanted to be environmentally conscious and protect our firefighters. The chief and his staff found a solution that is more environmentally friendly and just as effective.’ 2
Bloomberg Law issued an Environment & Energy Report:
‘Chemical companies, water utilities, and the U.S. government face a surge of legal challenges related to contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Nicknamed “forever chemicals” for their ability to build up and linger in the environment and human bodies long after exposure, PFAS are commonly used in cookware, rugs, and other household items.
‘Federal and state regulators have been slow to respond to scientific research shedding light on health hazards linked to some types of the ubiquitous chemicals. Most action in recent years has instead played out in the courts, as litigants seek to make someone pay for the damages they say PFAS has wrought. Legal analysts say the cases could ultimately cost companies billions of dollars.’ 3
In February 2020, the United States Fire Administration (USFA) suggested fire departments replace older stocks of Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) but ‘older’ inventory was left undefined.4
Fluorine-free firefighting foams have met technical testing standards through Underwriters Laboratories UL 162 and National Fire Protection Association’s NFPA 18. However, these standard testing entities do not consider toxicity.
States have been surveying fire departments for firefighting foam inventories. At this point, it is mainly voluntary. Data is being collected in order to form budgets for collection and disposal.
‘Funding should be made available to assist stations with the costs of replacing expired and unwanted fluorinated AFFF stocks and associated system components and equipment contaminated with PFAS. 3M is in the process of implementing a stewardship program supporting proper disposal of their legacy AFFF product (3M Light Water) which customers may still possess, and other states like Massachusetts have implemented AFFF take-back programs.’ 5
Firefighters have used fluorinated firefighting foams without knowing the cancer-causing risks to themselves and the communities they serve. PFAS chemicals ‘are linked to multiple types of cancerous tumors and other diseases.’ 6 As the first line risk manager, incident commanders have been unaware of PFAS toxicity for decades.
The former director of the National Institute of Health (NIH), Dr Linda Birnbaum, has repeatedly stated that all of these chemicals have toxicity issues.
Changes have been slowly evolving.
- The United States Fire Administration (USFA), FEMA, Line of Duty Deaths reports the decline of on-duty firefighter fatalities while cancer deaths continue to climb.7
- The federal Department of Justice, Public Safety Officers’ Benefit (PSOB) death criteria has been changed. ‘Deaths directly resulting from cancer, disease, or infection, that are defined as meeting the criteria of the decedent’s home state occupational exposure presumption laws. (Note: Applies only to such deaths occurring on or after January 1, 2018.)’ 8
- The National Fire Protection Association sets firefighting foam standards for the fire service with industry involvement.
Scientists are working to have PFAS chemicals considered as a class grouping. There are 9,000+ varieties of these human-made chemicals.9 Some sources continue to focus on only two PFAS compounds – PFOA and PFOS. Independent scientists prefer that the entire PFAS chemical class be addressed as a whole instead of single chemicals.10
During the transition phase of moving to fluorine-free firefighting foams, enacted and proposed PFAS firefighting foam regulations at this time are not addressing clean-up or clean-out of fire apparatus and associated equipment used.11
To date, 26 states have passed or have pending legislation on addressing firefighting foam.12 Several states have now completed or are in the process of compiling firefighting foam inventory surveys. Departments may come across unlabelled firefighting foam containers.13
Foam pails do not always contain information such as the date of production or lot numbers. Information may have been missed being applied during production. The information is known to rub off easily.
In short, the Foam Exposure Committee recommends that fire departments:
- Do not use AFFF, AR-AFFF or C6 firefighting foam products due to their high PFAS content. The high levels of PFAS found in foam products goes beyond the ‘legacy’ firefighting foam types.
- Foams containing PFAS should never be used for training.
- If fire apparatus and equipment cannot be totally replaced because of AFFF contamination, there will need to be clean-out/decontamination procedures. Presently, the Department of Defense is working with the Federal Aviation Association and the USEPA on this issue. There is no national plan at this time.
- Fire departments will need to be positively certain a new replacement foam is fluorine-free.
- There are no regulations that require US fire departments to use a fluorinated firefighting foam product.14
- Funding for take-back programmes is hit and miss. If a fire department is able to participate in a voluntary inventory program, this would help with obtaining future funding sources.
- Do not use a fluorinated firefighting foam in decon operations on firefighters…
- Be aware of cross contamination.
We would highly encourage a national plan to address all factors of PFAS contaminated apparatus and associated equipment from the Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration and fire departments.
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- Kenosha News, Concerned about contaminating groundwater, fire department ends use of fluorinated foam, 21 January 2020, Deneen Smith, https://www.kenoshanews.com/news/local/concerned-about-contaminating-groundwater-fire-department-ends-use-of-fluorinated-foam/article_1829b822-6c8e-50b9-9819-d36c48ab06e8.html
- PFAS Power Lawyers Steer Multibillion-Dollar Litigation Boom, Ellen M. Gilmer, Bloomberg Law, Environment & Energy Report, 4 December 2020, https://bnanews102.bna.com/environment-and-energy/pfas-power-lawyers-steer-multibillion-dollar-litigation-boom
- USFA, The Hidden Dangers in Firefighting Foam, Coffee Break Bulletin, posted 11 February 2020, https://www.usfa.fema.gov/training/coffee_break/021120.html
- North Carolina Policy Collaboratory Firefighting Foam (AFFF) Inventory and Recommendations, Final Report, Wanda Bodnar, Ph.D., 15 April 2021, p. 7, https://ncpfastnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/18487/2021/04/Collaboratory-AFFF-Final-Report-15Apr2021.pdf
- The PFAS Project Lab, Military bases are full of cancer causing PFAS chemicals, SOFREP, 1 June 2020, https://pfasproject.com/2020/06/01/military-bases-are-full-of-cancer-causing-pfas-chemicals/
- Criteria for Inclusion on the National Monument, accessed 15 December 2020, https://www.firehero.org/fallen-firefighters/memorial/
- Firefighter Fatalities in 2019, USFA, FEMA, October 2020, https://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/firefighter-fatalities-2019.pdf
- More PFAS Found in Maryland Water & Seafood, Tim Whitehouse & Kirsten Stade, 16 November 2020, https://www.peer.org/more-pfas-found-in-maryland-water-and-seafood/
- Food Packaging Forum, Scientists request US EPA to ban PFAS a class, Vanessa Srebney https://www.foodpackagingforum.org/news/scientists-request-us-epa-to-ban-pfas-as-a-class
- North Carolina Policy Collaboratory Firefighting Foam (AFFF) Inventory and Recommendations, Final Report, Wanda Bodnar, Ph.D., 15 April 2021, p.17-19, https://ncpfastnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/18487/2021/04/Collaboratory-AFFF-Final-Report-15Apr2021.pdf
- New York State Pollution Prevention Institute, Rochester Institute of Technology, Kate Winnebeck, 2018 and 2019, http://theic2.org/article/download-pdf/file_name/Per_and_Polyfluorinated_Substances_in_Firefighting_Foam_040919.pdf, p.12 & 34