Firefighting Foam Chemicals Polluting Water Supplies of Major Cities

Published on January 28, 2020 by Laurie Villanueva

A prominent environmental group is warning that PFAS – the toxic chemicals found in certain types of firefighting foam – are polluting the water supplies of several major cities across the United States.

Perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are manmade chemicals used in everything from stain retardant fabrics and Teflon cookware to food packaging and cleaning products. Although they’ve been around since the 1940s, a growing body of research suggests exposure to PFAS is linked to reproductive and developmental harm, liver and kidney damage, and even cancer.

PFAS are also called the “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down. In fact, these compounds are known to persist in the environment – and the human body – for decades.

EWG Found PFAS Pollution at 44 Sites

Recently, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested the drinking water at 44 sites in 31 states and Washington, D.C.  for the presence PFAS chemicals. What the group discovered was alarming:

  • Only one location, Meridian, Mississippi, which relies on 700ft (215m) deep wells, had no detectable PFAS.
  • Only Seattle, Washington and Tuscaloosa, Alabama had levels below 1 part per trillion, the limit recommended by the EWG.
  • Some of the highest PFAS levels were detect in samples from major metropolitan areas, including Miami, Philadelphia, New Orleans and the northern New Jersey suburbs of New York City.
  • In 34 places where EWG’s tests found PFAS, contamination has not been publicly reported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or state environmental agencies.

The most notorious PFAS compounds – PFOA and PFOS – have been phased out due to pressure from the EPA. However, the EWG found PFOA in 30 of 44 samples, and PFOS in 34.

“EWG has mapped PFAS contamination of drinking water or ground water in almost 1,400 sites in 49 states,” the report states. “Previously, our analysis of unpublished EPA data estimates that water supplies for 110 million Americans may be contaminated with PFAS – an estimate that could be much too low, based on our new findings.”

PFAS and Firefighting Foam

PFOA and PFOS have been linked to cancer and other adverse health effects in studies involving lab animals. The EPA 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 Affair 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 can be found in many aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF or firefighting foam), which have long been used in military and civilian settings to extinguish fires fed by jet fuel and other highly flammable liquids.

More than 200 firefighter foam lawsuits are currently pending in a multidistrict litigation now underway in the U.S. District Court, District of South Carolina, all of which claim these chemicals contaminated groundwater near various military bases, airports, and other industrial sites where AFFFs were used. The plaintiffs involved in this litigation are seeking compensation for personal injuries, medical monitoring, property damage or other economic losses they allegedly incurred as a result of PFAS contamination.

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