Lawmakers in Wisconsin have approved restrictions on PFAS-containing firefighting foams in a bid to prevent the toxic chemicals from further contaminating soil and groundwater.
Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, has made improving water quality a top priority for his administration. In August, he signed an executive order directing the Department of Natural Resources to develop regulatory limits on PFAS.
Meanwhile, Republicans in the state legislature proposed a bill that would prohibit most use of PFAS firefighting foams except in emergency situations. Firefighters would be required to use PFAS-free foams in training exercises, and those containing the chemicals could only be used for testing when a facility has implemented DNR-approved containment and disposal measures to prevent releases into the environment.
Violators would face a $5,000 fine per incident.
The bill was approved via voice vote in the Wisconsin Senate on Tuesday afternoon, with the Assembly following suit later that same day. However, it’s not certain Evers will actually sign the bill into law, as Democrats complained the measure did not go far enough.
“(The foam bill) does not change anything. It does not deal with existing contamination. We need to do much more,” Democratic Sen. Mark Miller said. “(PFAS contamination) is not just hypothetical. This is real. This is something we need to respond to.”
The bill’s chief Senate sponsor, Republican Robert Cowles, promised the proposal was only a start and indicated that more legislation will be coming. Republican Rep. John Nygren, the bill’s chief Assembly sponsor, echoed those assertions.
“This bill is not the sole solution to the problem,” he said. “We all want clean drinking water.”
PFAS, or polyfluoroalkyl substances, are synthetic chemicals found in dozens of products, including aqueous film-forming firefighting foams, stain resistant fabrics, and Teflon cookware. Over time, PFAS accumulate in the environment, including groundwater, and the human body. Known as the “forever chemicals,” they never break down.
Two specific PFAS — PFOA and PFOS – have been linked to cancer and other adverse health effects in studies involving lab animals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies both chemicals as “emerging contaminants,” and has established a “Lifetime Health Advisory” setting a recommended lifetime limit for exposure from drinking water.
The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs has also issued a warning regarding increased risks of breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, testicular cancer and kidney cancer related to the use of firefighting foam at U.S. military installations.
PFOA and PFOS have not been manufactured or used in the United States since 2015. However, PFOA has been detected in the blood of 98% of the U.S. population. The chemicals are also found in the environment, especially near military bases and manufacturing facilities, where PFOA has seeped into local water supplies.
More than 130 firefighting foam lawsuits have been centralized before a single judge in the U.S. District Court, District of South Carolina. Many of the claims seek compensation for cancer and medical monitoring on behalf of firefighters exposed to PFAS-containing foams.