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New Investigation Reveals Why Harmful Chemicals Remain in Firefighting Foam and Contaminate Drinking Water

An important new article from Sharon Lerner in The Intercept highlights the health and environmental problems of newer generation PFAS chemicals used in certain firefighting foams. It uncovers the chemical industry’s dubious claims of safety and efficacy of these foams and why PFAS-free foams could be the better choice.

Please read the entire article, which is available here.

Some highlights include:

PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam have contaminated drinking water for millions, including residents here in Washington, prompting one U.S. health official to call it “a seminal public health challenge”.

“Chemicals in the foam, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have seeped into water in and around those bases. (PFOA and PFOS are just the two best-known examples of the much larger class of PFAS molecules.) Because mounting research links these chemicals with a host of health problems, including kidney, testicular, bladder, and prostate cancer, as well as immune, reproductive, and hormonal dysfunction, the contamination amounts to a “seminal public health challenge,” as Patrick Breysse, director of the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Environmental Health, recently described it.”

Newer generation PFASs in newer foams, present similar problems to the older PFOA and PFOS chemicals, including accumulation in blood and body tissues, as well as persistence in the environment.

“Though marketed as environmentally responsible, this new foam contains PFAS chemicals based on slightly shorter carbon chains — six, as opposed to eight, atoms. While many of these shorter compounds exit the human body more quickly, they still accumulate in blood and other tissues. And, like the longer compounds that have been the focus of environmental concerns across the country and around the world, these shorter molecules will persist indefinitely in the environment and never break down on their own.”

The EPA has evidence that the newer generation PFAS chemicals pose a public health threat, including evidence from the chemical makers’ own studies.

“As with PFOS and PFOA, the EPA has evidence that these shorter chain PFAS molecules accumulate in people’s bodies and the environment, posing threats to both. Some of the studies showing the dangers of these persistent chemicals came from the manufacturers themselves, according to documents obtained by The Intercept.”

USEPA’s own scientists raised concerns about the use of the foam in 2000 based on a study conducted by the chemical’s manufacturers – DuPont and 3M.

“At an August 2000, meeting at the Pentagon, an EPA staffer who worked on chemical risk explained the research that had led 3M to decide to take its products off the market. She described one study, conducted by both 3M and DuPont, which by that point was making a similar product. In the experiment, monkeys exposed to PFOS had lost weight, developed enlarged livers, and, in some cases, died within three weeks. Because some of the monkeys given the lowest dose of the chemical had died, the researchers were unable to find any safe level of exposure. Citing other research as well, she warned that the continued release of PFOS would pose a “serious concern for potential future risk for humans and wildlife.”

The same EPA scientist recommended the military find alternatives to the entire class of PFAS chemicals because of concerns about their health and environmental impacts.

“But less than a year after her first presentation, the EPA staffer spoke again at the Pentagon, where she reiterated the EPA’s concerns about PFOS and took her warnings a step further: The EPA wasn’t just concerned about PFOS, she explained, going on to advise the military brass not to rely on any of this class of chemicals, and recommend a “program to seek, test, and consider long-range alternatives.” In the meantime, the EPA would be studying the risks.”

Makers of PFAS chemicals DuPont and Dynax have engaged in a lobbying efforts to keep non-PFAS containing foams off the market.

“But the company [Solberg, maker of PFAS-free foam] ran into significant opposition from the makers of AFFF. “The pressure on Solberg has been tremendous,” said Solberg, who retired in 2010 and sold the company in 2011. “We have been attacked by the foam manufacturers and the fluorosurfactant manufacturers, DuPont and Dynax.” Solberg complained that AFFF manufacturers “hired lobbyists to say this foam has never performed on any live fires, which wasn’t true.”

Firefighting foams that do not contain harmful PFAS chemicals are on the market and in use today, including at Heathrow Airport.

“Graeme Day, the fire service compliance manager at Heathrow Airport in the U.K., has no regrets about the switch. Because Day was aware of the bitter battle over foam among fire experts, he conducted extensive public testing of the two types before Heathrow switched to fluorine-free foam in 2012. Day carefully documented the tests and even made sure that they were independently witnessed by representatives of the civil aviation authority.

The chemical vendors had warned Day beforehand that the new foam “would not work and protect passengers and firefighters well enough,” he said. But Day has felt only relief about the decision in the past five years — particularly after a British Airways airbus developed engine problems and caught fire in 2015. The firefighters had used fluorine-free foam to quickly put out the flames. Most importantly, no one was hurt. And for Day, there was an added plus: “zero cleanup costs and zero environmental concerns.”

These are just short excepts from what is an eye-opening article. Again, please read the entire article available here.

Find out more about Washington state’s bill to ban PFAS-containing firefighting foams and how you can help.