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PFAS in firefighting foam: we’ve come so far

It was late 2016 when thousands of U.S. residents living near military bases started getting disturbing letters in the mail—notices from the U.S. military that testing of their drinking water wells had found contamination with PFAS, commonly known as “forever chemicals.” The source was the frequent and liberal use of firefighting foam containing PFAS, not only for fighting fires but also for testing and training.

Today, less than eight years later, the military has gone from insisting that aircraft and airport safety require PFAS-containing firefighting foam to moving toward safer, effective fluorine-free foams in a transition scheduled to be completed this October. With many U.S. residents’ drinking water still contaminated with PFAS, we can’t yet have an unbridled celebration. But we can take time to recognize how far we’ve come, thank the leaders who got us here, and see what we can learn from the experience.

The story starts with decades of research that identified firefighting foam as a prime culprit in PFAS contamination. At the same time, firefighters concerned about high rates of cancer also prioritized foam for replacement with a safer substitute. Add to that mix the advocacy of groups like Toxic-Free Future, the courage of forward-thinking legislators willing to go first, and the recognition by leading companies and users that the future was fluorine-free, and you have the makings of a major shift from a very harmful product to a much safer solution.

But the journey from “forever chemical” to fluorine-free has not been an easy one. And while we are well on our way, it’s not over yet.

For Toxic-Free Future, our work to ban the entire class of PFAS started before PFAS contamination of drinking water around the country grabbed headlines. Back in 2015, thanks to Washington state’s program on persistent toxic chemicals, the Department of Ecology started developing an action plan on PFAS with input from stakeholders like TFF, drinking water providers, firefighters, the chemical industry, and others. We successfully advocated that the plan should cover the entire PFAS class—not just the specific compounds the industry agreed were harmful—and to target eliminating PFAS in products.

While it’s been clear for a while that it’s a terrible idea to use a persistent, mobile, and toxic chemical in a product sprayed outdoors in large quantities, the solutions were not obvious to everyone. Fortunately, the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters didn’t let that stop them from calling for an end to the use of PFAS-containing firefighting foam; they had experience with fluorine-free foams and knew that they worked. TFF stepped up with the firefighters to lead the fight for a ban in the state legislature.

Most toxics-related issues don’t come to a quick resolution in state legislatures or Congress—but in the case of PFAS-containing foam, threatening firefighters and contaminating drinking water, the Washington legislature acted fast and others quickly followed. By March of 2018, Washington had passed the first state law banning the sale of such foams for most uses, covering all PFAS using a definition we helped draft that has since become the standard in laws across the country. By June of that year, two more state legislatures had enacted similar bans. By October 2018, Congress had directed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to allow civilian airports to use fluorine-free foam. And in December 2020, with the leadership of then House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (WA-09), Congress directed the military to end nearly all uses of PFAS-containing foam by October 2024.

As we won these victories, TFF was hard at work identifying safer foams and users who had found them to be effective. We attended a conference at the Dallas Fort Worth Fire Training Center and met Chief Randy Krause, leader of the fire department at SeaTac airport and a strong advocate for moving to fluorine-free, who had trained with the new foams and was confident they would work. We learned from Niall Ramsden, who has extensively tested fluorine-free foams for major oil companies. We met leaders like Damian Southorn, who has led a refinery fire department for decades, and Lars Andersen, who has fought fires for the Danish Royal Air Force, both using PFAS-free foam. And we worked with our partners at Clean Production Action to develop GreenScreen Certified® for Firefighting Foam—the first certification for firefighting foam—ensuring that replacement foams are safer for people and the environment.

Just a few short years ago, representatives from the FAA lectured us on the many reasons they believed PFAS-containing foams were absolutely necessary in aviation. Fortunately, other leaders prevailed and today, the military has revised its key specifications to not only allow the use of fluorine-free foams, but to prohibit any use of PFAS. We were especially excited to learn recently that the military approved one foam with GreenScreen certification, and that more of these safer foams may soon join it on the military’s Qualified Products List.

We continue to advocate for rapid movement away from the remaining uses of PFAS-containing foam and toward safer solutions. Needed policies include a federal ban on the use of such foams by civilian airports, completion of the military transition to fluorine-free foam, and ultimately, a ban on all uses of PFAS-containing foam. While the 2020 military spending bill (NDAA) may allow the military to take extensions until late 2026 to complete its transition, we will urge our Congressional leaders to keep the pressure on for the Department of Defense to move more quickly. 

The transition from PFAS-based to fluorine-free foam has been one of the swiftest, and at the same time most impactful, market transformations we have ever seen. We are so thankful for the members of the fire service who insisted on change, the individuals with contaminated drinking water who spoke up, the firefighting experts who showed that fluorine-free foam does the job, and the policymakers who made the right decision.

It’s devastating that this success came only after the use of PFAS-containing foams led to the contamination of drinking water for millions of U.S. residents and thousands of cancer cases among firefighters. Moving forward, we owe it to the people who have suffered from the mistakes of the past to double down on ensuring the products we turn to are as safe as possible. Programs like GreenScreen Certified®, Safer Choice, and Safer Products for Washington are leading the way—let’s expand their reach to more key sectors and secure a healthier marketplace.