Extremely persistent and cancer-causing chemicals called PFAS chemicals are used in firefighting foam and gear. They are contaminating drinking water and threatening firefighter health.

The “Virtually Indestructible” Chemicals

PFASs or nonstick chemicals (per and polyfluorylalkyl substances) are used in a variety of products: greaseproof coatings on food packaging, stain- and water-resistant coatings on furniture and clothing, firefighting foam, and even firefighting gear. These chemicals are extremely persistent, staying in our bodies and environment without breaking down for such long periods of time that they’ve been called “virtually indestructible.” PFAS chemicals are linked to serious health problems including kidney and testicular cancer, hormone disruption, liver toxicity, harm to the immune system, and reduced birth weight. 

PFASs in Firefighting Foam Contaminate Drinking Water

In the last few years, health officials across the country, including in Washington state, have discovered drinking water contaminated with PFASs. Communities on Whidbey Island and in cities like Issaquah and Airway Heights have been forced to deal with this drinking water contamination, in some cases having to provide bottled water or spend nearly $1 million on filtration systems. Residents who unknowingly consumed the contaminated water now carry these harmful chemicals in their bodies.

Experts pinpoint the source of Washington’s contamination to the use of certain firefighting foams called “aqueous film forming foam” or AFFF. This foam is intended to put out oil fires, such as car fires or airplane fires. The problem is that the PFAS chemicals in the foam are contaminating drinking water, waterways, soil, and people across the state. The widespread contamination caused by AFFF demands urgent action.

Firefighter Exposure to PFASs On the Job Threaten Health of Firefighters

Firefighters face many hazards on the job – one of them shouldn’t be unnecessary exposure to PFAS chemicals in the foams or gear they use. Yet firefighters are likely exposed to PFASs when they use firefighting foam or put on gear coated with PFASs.

Cancer is now the leading cause of line of duty deaths for fire fighters. They are more likely than other workers to be afflicted with some forms of cancer, and that increased incidence may be due to chemical exposures on the job.

Firefighting Foams and Gear Must Be Made Without Harmful PFASs

Effective and safe methods for putting out oil fires are critical to protecting health and property. But PFAS-containing firefighting foam is creating a toxic legacy across the state and poses an occupational hazard to firefighters who train with it and use it.  

Policymakers must take action to protect drinking water, people, and the environment. The use of PFAS-containing foams must be phased out in favor of safer alternatives. Several fluorine-free foams are already on the market, and can be used in a number of applications.

That’s why we’re joining our allies at the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters and supporting two bills in the Washington State Legislature this session: HB 2793/SB 6413.

These bills address two sources of PFAS – firefighting foam and firefighting gear. Specifically, the bills:

  • Ban the sale of firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals beginning 2018 except in situations that require the use of PFAS-containing foams, like at certain airports.
  • Require manufacturers of PFAS-containing firefighting gear to notify anyone purchasing the gear that the gear contains PFAS chemicals.

It’s possible to protect lives and property from fire while protecting drinking water, firefighters, and the environment. Legislators should do so quickly.

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