Water contamination issues from PFAS are creating pressure on the fire service to make changes in toxic AFFF products. PFAS contamination of drinking water is threatening people’s health in many communities worldwide. Firefighters have been and continue to be placed in the quandary of contaminating their own communities since they have been told the foams are as “safe as soap” to use.
A new database compiled by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Northeastern University found more than 610 drinking water sources in 43 states with potentially unsafe levels of the chemicals1.
Local fire departments in the US have been using fluorinated firefighting foams without the full knowledge of their toxicity. A midwestern fire department was even spraying local residents’ lawns with leftover firefighting foam after fire calls since they believed it was a good fertilizer.
Incident commanders are considered the first-line risk managers in the fire service but they have not been provided with adequate basic information to properly make decisions on using toxic firefighting foams.
Madison Fire Department
In Wisconsin, the Madison Fire Department experienced a PFAS contamination issue firsthand after some downtown transformer fires occurred in July 2019. These fires were extinguished with the use of firefighting foams. The firefighting foam company had stated their foam only contained “good” PFAS chemicals. But, afterwards the PFAS levels were tested in nearby Lake Monona. Testing results were substantially above USEPA and ATSDR advisory levels.
Public outcry from this event put pressure on the fire department to change out their perfluorinated firefighting foams to fluorine-free products. The fire department’s foam committee was charged with finding the new replacement foam. Physical burns and actual foaming tests were performed on a dozen firefighting foam samples. The list was narrowed down to three products that were then sent for independent total fluorine testing by Dr. Graham Peaslee, University of Notre Dame. These products were cleared to being fluorine-free. The fire department then chose two of those products to replace the old fluorinated firefighting foam products.
All fire apparatus at the Madison Fire Department had to be decontaminated before the fluorine-free foams could be put into use. The department followed decontamination protocols set by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The cost for this transition was $40,000 for the entire fleet of 38 fire trucks as the old foam had to be shipped to a hazardous material facility in Oregon for disposal. Another $40,000 was budgeted to buy new fluorine-free firefighting foam.
In December 2019, Madison’s fire department made the formal switch to a fluorine-free firefighting foam. “The fire service is always there to help, and to find out that we’re actually causing a problem in the environment and for our people potentially, I think it’s imperative that fire chiefs across the country realize that and make an immediate change,” Chief Steve Davis said. “I think on a personal level, I’ve got three young kids and I want them to have safe drinking water for years to come2.”
Numerous other fire departments in Wisconsin are now following the Madison Fire Department’s lead to be proactive in changing over to fluorine-free foams for firefighter and community safety.
Another assistant fire chief in central Wisconsin noted that their fire department was discussing PFAS every day, just prior to the COVID-19 crisis.
Tyco/Johnson Controls International
The Tyco plant (formerly Ansul), a unit of Johnson Controls International (JCI), is situated on a 380-acre fire technology center in Marinette, Wisconsin. The company produces specialized firefighting foams used to extinguish gas and oil fires at refineries, airports and military bases.
The center was used for testing, research and practical application training with foams for decades. Tyco ended spraying of firefighting foam with perfluorinated chemicals in late 2017.
Outdoor fire training had occurred since 1962.
The company was aware of PFAS contamination on their facility property in 2013 after they had testing done. Tyco re-tested in the spring of 2014 but did not report either test results to the DNR. The company first provided data to the DNR on PFAS contamination in November 2017, four years later. That was when Tyco believed the chemicals had spread outside their fire technology center. DNR then notified the public.
Firefighting foam run-off should avoid public sewers and storm drains according to industry recommendations. If too much firefighting foam is discharged into a wastewater system at one time, excess foaming may occur, which results in fouling municipal systems. Aesthetic and operational problems will occur in sewers and wastewater treatment facilities.
However, Tyco put firefighting foam run-off into Marinette’s utility systems for years. As a result, the PFAS chemicals then contaminated the biosolids from the waste-water treatment plant, which were sold to farmers as fertilizer. The biosolids were spread on agricultural land. At this time, 3,500 acres in Marinette county may potentially be PFAS contaminated by bio sludge that was spread between 1997 and 2017. A DNR spokesperson wrote the company in a letter that residents in the affected areas are “rightfully” worried about the health effects from the bioaccumulation of PFAS in food grown in the potentially toxic sludge. Further testing is presently on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under the oversight of the DNR, Johnson Controls, Inc. – Tyco Fire Products began conducting a site investigation for PFAS contamination in Fall 2017. Additional parties responsible for PFAS contamination have also been identified. State officials have ordered an investigation into the extent of the contamination.
Presently, there are seven square miles of PFAS contaminated groundwater from the outdoor training and testing of firefighting foams. In addition, perfluorinated chemicals used in the company’s firefighting foams have contaminated some private wells and the municipal water of a neighboring town, Peshtigo.
The fire departments of Marinette and Peshtigo have had their existing firefighting foams tested. They have both now switched over to fluorine-free firefighting foams.
“Many researchers and those in the firefighting foam industries have raised a concern about whether foams are truly fluorine-free or not3.” By testing for total fluorine, this can be accurately evaluated across all categories of foam products.
Tyco has been providing bottled water to residents and is presently exploring options for municipal water for residents. JCI is planning to pay for a new municipal water system installation to be installed by early 2021. Health officials say the two compounds found in the water, PFOS and PFOA, can lead to serious health problems, including some cancers, liver damage, and thyroid disease.
PFAS chemicals are under growing scrutiny nationally because of the human health risks associated with exposures. Health impacts have long been known4.
According to Tyco records filed with the DNR, PFAS contamination is entering Green Bay from ditches and groundwater. In June 2018, four samples of standing water in ditches at the fire training center tested at concentrations ranging from 417 to 4,620 ppt. Green Bay discharges affect Lake Michigan directly. Because the Great Lakes are all connected, what affects one affects the others. The Great Lakes collectively provide drinking water to 35 million people5.
US EPA reports the Great Lakes are 84% of North American surface water and contain 21% of the world’s supply of surface freshwater6.
In June 2019, the DNR referred JCI to the state’s Department of Justice, alleging they had waited four years to report the release of hazardous chemicals at its Marinette operations. This delay resulted in residents unknowingly drinking the contaminated water for years.
On-going community and governmental meetings continue to be held to address the city’s water and soil contamination problems. Anytime PFAS are released into the environment, these substances can lead to soil, groundwater contamination. There are public health concerns due to their persistent and bioaccumulative nature.
According to a news release issued on February 6, 2020, it was announced that: “Wisconsin has joined Minnesota, Michigan, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, Colorado and other states in working with local fire departments to address the environmental and human health risks associated with PFAS.” Preston D. Cole, Secretary of the Wisconsin DNR said, “Working
together we can ensure that alternative foams are both highly effective for fire suppression and much safer for the environment, which then protects the health of firefighters and the communities they serve7.”
Training with fluorinated foams is a concern. States are now beginning to address this issue. US fire departments will usually use whatever firefighting foams they have on hand for normal firefighting operations or use up old stock firefighting foam for training exercises. Individual states are now considering legislation to direct training use of firefighting foams in the absence of fire service directives.
In mid-2019, a Foam Exposure Committee was formed with former and active fire service members from across the US, with the intent to test in-use firefighting foam samples. Samples were obtained from active fire districts across dozens of US states, and were produced from 1978 through 2019.
This fact immediately highlighted a problem in that these older foams are still readily available for use by a fire department or are in active emergency caches. These foams are currently being tested for fluorine content.
With no clear direction from national-level fire service organizations, changes will continue to be driven by individual states as well as being influenced by liability and insurance aspects. “There is no regulation preventing the use of fluorine-free foams by non-military users, including firefighting training centers, chemical manufacturers, oil refineries, and others8.”
Fluorine free foams are the solution to this toxic issue since they have been proven acceptable worldwide and are considerably safer for firefighters as well as public water supplies.
Foam Exposure Committee Mission Statement – To reduce firefighter / first responder exposures to perfluorinated chemicals used in firefighting foams in order to protect their health and lives. We will determine which firefighting products contain PFAS and those that are fluorine-free. First responders should have immediate access to safer fluorine-free firefighting foams.
For more information, email Vikki Quint at [email protected]
1 Military Times, Here’s the latest count of suspected bases with toxic “forever chemicals” in the water, April 6, 2019, Meghann Myers, https://www.ewg.org/news-and-analysis/2019/05/ewg-news-roundup-510-expanding-pfas-contamination-crisis-golden-state-bans
3 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
5 Troubled Water, Seth M. Siegel, St. Martin’s Press, 2019, p. 83
8 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
The Foam Exposure Committee consists of
- Bill Hutchins (Arizona Fire Apparatus)
- Dion LeMieux (Haven South LLC)
- Rick Nickeson (Novacool Foam)
- Vicki Quint (Quint LLC)
- Rick Rochford (Environmental Response Solutions LLC)