A prominent environmental group is calling on the U.S. military and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to end the use of certain firefighting foams made with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of synthetic chemicals that have been linked to adverse health effects, including cancer.
For decades, military installations, fire training facilities, and municipal airports have used aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF to extinguish fires driven by jet fuel and other highly flammable liquids. But according to the Environmental Working Group, the pentagon has known since the 1970s that the PFAS used to manufacture AFFF are toxic.
Last December, Congress mandated that PFAS-containing firefighting foams be phased out by 2024. The prior year, legislators directed the FAA to change its rules so municipal airports can switch to PFAS-free alternatives.
In a statement published on April 22nd, the Environmental Working Group called for a faster phase-out, as viable alternatives are readily available. In fact, more than 100 PFAS-free firefighting foams marketed by 24 companies will be on the market by the end of this month.
According to the Group, these alternative foams are widely used around the world and meet various internationally accepted certifications and approvals, including those established by the International Civil Aviation Organization Level B.
“Fluorine-free foams are used by the Danish and Norwegian armed forces,” the statement notes, “All 27 major Australian airports have transitioned to fluorine-free foams, as have many major international airports, including London Heathrow and Gatwick, Paris-Charles De Gaulle and Dubai. Fluorine-free foams are used by oil and chemical manufacturers, including BP, ExxonMobil, Statoil, BASF, AkzoNobel, Pfizer and Lilly.”
PFAS are found in everything from Teflon cookware to stain-resistant carpet. Because they accumulate in the environment and human body and never break down, they’ve been dubbed the “forever chemicals.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies two specific PFAS used to manufacture AFFF — PFOA and PFOS — 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.
There are more than 580 firefighting foam lawsuits pending in a multidistrict litigation currently underway in the U.S. District Court, District of South Carolina. Plaintiffs include firefighters and other individuals who claim exposure to AFFF caused their cancer, as well as municipal governments that allege PFAS-containing foams used at military and civilian airports polluted community drinking water sources.