Toxic chemicals known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) have contaminated the soil and groundwater near an upstate New York incinerator that has been burning Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF) for the U.S. Department of Defense.
For decades, AFFF has been used to extinguish jet fuel fires at military installations and municipal airports across the United States. But in 2016, the U.S. Department of Defense decided to stop using firefighting foams manufactured with two specific PFAS – PFOA and PFOS.
The Department eventually granted a contract to a Norlite plant in Cohoes, New York to burn AFFF. Since then, 25 states have been sending firefighting foam to that facility in the hopes that the products could be safely incinerated at extremely high temperatures. According to The Intercept, the Norlite incinerator is located less than 200 meters from a public housing complex that houses more than 70 families.
Unfortunately, a new analysis conducted by researchers at Bennington College detected 10 PFAS compounds known to be associated with AFFF in three soil and four groundwater samples collected near the Norlite incinerator. While the levels declined with distance from the plant, measurements of PFOS were twice as high downwind from the Norlite facility than upwind.
“All of this provides a strong indication of airborne deposition of PFAS from ineffective incineration of AFFF at the Norlite facility,” David Bond, a professor of environmental studies at Bennington College, told the Intercept.
“Far from destroying PFAS, the Norlite plant appears to be raining down a witches’ brew of PFAS compounds on the poor and working class neighborhoods of Cohoes,” he continued.
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 come to be known as the forever chemicals.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies 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.
According to the Environmental Working Group, the Pentagon has known for decades that the PFAS used to manufacture AFFF are toxic. Last December, Congress mandated that PFAS-containing firefighting foams be phased out by 2024. A year earlier, the Federal Aviation Administration was directed to modify its its rules so municipal airports can switch to PFAS-free alternatives.
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.