Firefighting foam, used at airports and military bases, has been identified as a source of toxic PFAS chemicals. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fire Administration.
WASHINGTON — Battered by years of criticism from U.S. lawmakers and environmental advocates, the Department of Defense will stop purchasing PFAS-containing firefighting foam later this year and phase it out entirely in 2024.
The replacement for Aqueous Film Forming Foam has yet to be determined, and advocates are frustrated it’s taken so long to halt the use of a product containing a “forever chemical” that at high levels of exposure may lead to increased risks for cancer, among other effects. The pace of cleanup at potentially contaminated military installations and nearby communities also has come under scrutiny by Congress.
The Defense Department began searching for a fire suppressant that was more effective than water after a horrific fire aboard the USS Forrestal in 1967 killed 134 sailors and injured 161.
The answer turned out to be a highly effective firefighting foam containing PFAS — that the Pentagon and other federal agencies like the Forest Service now are struggling to find a substitute for, given the foam’s host of potential health and environmental problems.
The federal government’s widespread use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, which are especially strong and don’t break down naturally, has spurred concerns for decades. PFAS are used in hundreds of products where resisting heat or repelling water is especially important. That has made them ubiquitous in household items like nonstick pans as well as larger, more industrial applications like firefighting foam.
“The problem with PFAS is it’s a highly effective fire remedy. The other problem, of course, is it’s indestructible,” House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Ken Calvert, R-Calif., told States Newsroom. “So we need to find a solution. We need to find a replacement. It’s been a lot harder than expected, but they’re working on it.”
Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, a former U.S. Army officer and a member of the Armed Services Committee, said there are concerns about how exactly the Defense Department is phasing out PFAS and if the replacements will be as good as the firefighting foam it uses now.
But, she said, the Pentagon needs to ensure its use of PFAS isn’t causing health impacts for people on or near military installations. The Pentagon has identified more than 700 installations where PFAS could have leached into the soil or groundwater, and begun testing to determine how extensive any contamination may be. Testing and cleanup costs are expected to mount into the billions.
“It’s still used broadly by a lot of the firefighting units that exist across the DOD. And we don’t have a replacement, so that is a huge concern,” Ernst said. “We need to have the capability of suppressing fires, fighting fires, and until we have a replacement, we’ll have to make do.”
While the Forest Service, commercial airports and fire departments also use the fire-suppressing foam that contains PFAS, the U.S. military’s choice of a replacement in the coming months will likely have tremendous influence on what other agencies do.
Decades of warnings
The Pentagon had plenty of notice there was a problem with its firefighting foam.
In the 1990s, after years of use, chemical companies issued health notices about the PFAS-containing firefighting foam, triggering initial reviews of the chemical, according to congressional testimony from Richard Kidd, deputy assistant secretary of defense for environment and energy resilience.
Kidd told the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that it wasn’t until 2016 the Defense Department “had a final health advisory from the EPA we were able to take measurable actions.”
But, Michael Roark, deputy inspector general for evaluations at the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General, noted that in 2011 the Defense Department issued a risk alert saying the PFAS-containing firefighting foam “contained chemicals that presented a risk to human health and environmental risks that requires special handling and disposal.”
That inspector general report on the 2011 risk alert notes the Defense Department was not taking action to regulate or reduce the use of PFAS at that time.
“As a result, people and the environment may have been exposed to preventable risks from PFAS containing AFFF,” the IG report said.
Congress told the Defense Department in the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act to phase out firefighting foam that contains PFAS, but gave the agency years to do it, seeking to balance environmental health and drinking water exposure concerns with the safety of service members fighting fires, according to a U.S. Senate aide, speaking on background.
Effective at extinguishing fires
PFAS-containing firefighting foams have been highly effective for extinguishing high-heat liquid fuel fires because of their useful and unique chemical properties.
The carbon-fluorine bond is one of the strongest in chemistry.
“It’s the strongest bond you can make to carbon, and so that makes the molecules very persistent,” said Ryan Sullivan, a chemistry professor and associate director of the Institute for Green Science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
The man-made chemicals — in which fluorine atoms have been bonded to carbon atoms — are really surface active, meaning they spread quickly across a surface and create a film to interrupt the fuel source feeding the fire.
“If you can quickly coat the surface of, say, the (liquid) that’s burning or the forest fire with something that doesn’t burn and prevents oxygen from getting to the fire, you shut off the fire,” said Sullivan, who began researching PFAS chemicals in 2000.
Contamination near military bases
While the Pentagon has phased out the foam for training to reduce exposure, it’s still present in airplane hanger sprinklers, Navy ships and submarines. It’s only used if there’s an aircraft fire or a plane crash, according to the U.S. Senate aide.
The Defense Department has to report to Congress anytime the foam is accidentally spilled, though decades of PFAS use, in the firefighting foam and other products, has already contaminated military bases and the surrounding communities.
Congress has also placed language in more than one of the annual defense policy bills, calling for the Defense Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct a human health assessment.
New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said after securing language in the fiscal 2018 defense policy bill for the first nationwide study on the chemical’s impact on drinking water that it was “completely unacceptable that parents in our community, and those in affected communities across the nation, have to worry about the safety of their children’s drinking water because of this contamination.”
That led the CDC to begin tracking PFAS contamination near several military sites, including in Berkeley County, West Virginia, near Shepherd Field Air National Guard Base; El Paso County, Colorado, near Peterson Air Force Base; Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska, near Eielson Air Force Base; Hampden County, Massachusetts, near Barnes Air National Guard Base; Lubbock County, Texas, near Reese Technology Center; Orange County, New York, near Stewart Air National Guard Base; New Castle County, Delaware, near New Castle Air National Guard Base; and Spokane County, Washington, near Fairchild Air Force Base.
Results showed that residents living in several of those communities had higher blood levels of certain PFAS chemicals compared to PFAS blood levels nationwide.
The report, released in September, revealed that residents’ blood in Airway Heights, Washington, presented significantly higher levels of two types of PFAS chemicals when compared to national levels, and to the other communities tested. Airway Heights sits in close proximity to the runways at Fairchild Air Force Base and Spokane International Airport.
‘Early phases’ of investigation
As of July 2022, the Defense Department had completed preliminary assessments at 476 of the 700 sites determined to have possible PFAS spread, with preparations for cleanup underway at 144 sites, according to a Defense Department report.
Testing and cleanup will cost at least $2.1 billion more than the $1.1 billion the Pentagon’s already spent, according to a report to the Government Accountability Office, a watchdog agency.
“These costs will likely increase significantly, because DOD is still in the early phases of its PFAS investigation,” the GAO wrote.
Senate Defense Appropriations Chair Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, said he hopes the Pentagon moves quickly to phase out PFAS wherever it can, noting “it’s a problem in polluting the water and causing cancer.”
“It’s a good thing for the military too, because the base cleanup is expensive as s—t,” Tester added.
Minnesota Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum, ranking member on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said in a written statement she plans to focus on PFAS remediation, cleanup and destruction technology during the upcoming government funding cycle.
“PFAS is linked to thyroid disease, cancer, and birth defects, among other serious diseases,” McCollum said. “It’s clear this is a very serious issue that must be addressed to keep people healthy and safe.”
The funding Congress has approved so far, McCollum said, has led the Pentagon to move toward phasing out firefighting foams, which she called “one of the most significant uses of PFAS.”
“The DOD must work with the EPA to control these substances similar to the way they do with nuclear waste,” McCollum said. “In very rare instances, some PFAS products will need to continue to be used in the short term until alternatives exist — for example, those with national security implications like critical microelectronic production.”
The Environmental Working Group, one of the main advocacy organizations tracking the cleanup effort, has criticized the Defense Department for moving “slowly.”
“In most cases, they are not even at the point where they’re hiring someone to do the cleanup,” said Melanie Benesh, the organization’s vice president for government affairs.
Potential risks of PFAS exposure
Scientists and advocates have been sounding the alarm for decades on the potential health impacts of PFAS.
The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry warns studies indicate human exposure to high levels of PFAS “may” lead to increased cholesterol, increased risk of kidney and testicular cancers, increased risk of high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia during pregnancy, low birth weight, changes in liver enzymes, and decreased vaccine response in children.
“Additional research may change our understanding of the relationship between exposure to PFAS and human health effects,” the agency states on its webpage.
As a requirement of the fiscal 2020 defense policy bill, the military in 2021 began testing PFAS levels in the blood of its firefighters during annual exams.
Attention to PFAS, beyond just military bases, has accelerated in recent years.
More than a dozen government agencies allocated just over $250 million on research and development related to PFAS chemicals between 2019 and 2022, according to an interagency report mandated by the 2021 defense policy bill.
The bipartisan infrastructure law, enacted in 2021, allocates $5 billion in grants and resources for small and disadvantaged communities to tackle PFAS contamination in drinking water.
The EPA on March 14 proposed new standards for six types of PFAS chemicals in drinking water.
If finalized, the agency will regulate PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic Acid) and PFOS (Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid) to a level of four parts per trillion — the level at which those chemicals can be reliably detected — in public drinking water systems.
The rule proposes limits in public drinking water on any mixture of four other specific PFAS chemicals, including types under the brand name GenX, manufactured by the North Carolina-based company Chemours as a replacement for PFOA.
The company, a spin-off of DuPont, touts the effectiveness of its GenX chemicals in the defense, energy and technology sectors, particularly in the production of semiconductor chips — an industry crucial for the technology supply chain and the target of potentially hundreds of billions of dollars in government subsidies and research grants.
Alternative firefighting foam
In January, the Pentagon released new requirements for PFAS-free firefighting foam.
The department has until October to ensure there’s an alternative foam on the market that meets the new performance standards and to stop buying any PFAS-containing foams. It then has one additional year, until October 2024, to stop using them entirely.
The Pentagon, however, hasn’t yet released a list of PFAS-free fire-suppressing foams.
The Naval Sea Systems Command is in the process of reviewing applications from PFAS-free foam manufacturers. Any approved candidates will need to undergo “various inspections, tests, and evaluations to determine if the product meets the specification,” according to Kelly Flynn, spokesperson for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
The process is expected to take up to 120 days.
The Pentagon’s two programs tasked with researching the alternatives have “conducted rigorous research and demonstration testing for viable PFAS-free solutions,” including some non-foam alternatives.
“There are many viable alternatives for replacing AFFF, however, no single technology is suitable for every situation. The Department continues to evaluate all available technologies to find the best fit for each mission need and level of risk,” Flynn said.
PFAS-free firefighting foam has been on the market for decades and several countries have put it to use extinguishing jet fuel blazes at major international airports, including Australia’s Sydney Airport, Dubai International in the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom’s London Heathrow airport and several European hubs, according to a 2020 report from the European Chemicals Agency.
Several U.S. states have passed or proposed prohibitions on foam that still contains PFAS. Hawaii banned it last year, and bills in the Alaska and Minnesota state legislatures would strictly regulate or outlaw the use of such foams, though with some exceptions.
At the federal level more decisions — for example, what firefighting foams are used by the Federal Aviation Administration — hinge on the Defense Department’s decision.
The FAA has until July to develop a plan to transition from the PFAS-containing foam now that the Pentagon has updated its specifications, according to the House and Senate reports that accompanied Congress’ latest funding law.
“We’re waiting to see their list (of alternatives),” said Benesh, from The Environmental Working Group.
“There are well over 100 foams that are considered good for Class B fires — these high-heat, jet-fuel based (fires) — that are used at airports and fire stations all over the world and have been in development for a long time,” Benesh said. “Not all of those hundreds of foams will meet the new military standard, but certainly a number of them will.”
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