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Federal and state officials are struggling to find ways to get rid of toxic chemicals used in firefighting foam that make their way into drinking water, including per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that have come to be known as “forever chemicals”, since they can linger long-term and cause serious health risks.
On July 15, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a press release announcing new treatment options and scientific references to help remove the fire foam chemicals from drinking water, as part of a PFAS Action Plan first announced last year.
Aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) has been used for decades to fight petroleum-based fires, which cannot be controlled or subdued by water alone. However, in recent years, substantial concerns have emerged about health risks linked to AFFF foam exposure, and municipal water supplies near several military bases, airports and other training locations have been found to contain Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) from the foam, which are cancer-causing chemicals that are collectively known as PFAS.
The EPA updates were added to the agency’s Drinking Water Treatability Database and identified four new compounds which should be classified as PFAS chemicals, including difuoro (perfluoromethoxy) acetic acid, also known as perfluoro-2-methoxyacetic acid; perfluoro-3,5-dioxahexanoic acid; perfluoro-3,5,7-trioxaoctanoic acid; and perfluoropropane sulfonate. They also added 20 new scientific references, deepening the available information on other existing PFAS compounds.
“The latest addition of four PFAS compounds and 20 new scientific references to the Drinking Water Treatability Database increases our depth of scientific knowledge on this emerging chemical of concern, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in the press release. “The update serves as an important tool for states, tribes and communities across the country as they can now use these new treatment technologies to better protect public health and manage PFAS in drinking water,”
Despite the new additions to its database and potential treatment options, the EPA has not yet regulated PFAS in drinking water. However, it is attempting to help states figure out how to dispose of almost 1 million gallons of AFFF safely as the chemicals continue to be found in drinking water supplies nationwide.
Both the EPA and the state of New York are currently researching possible health risks linked to incinerating AFFF stockpiles, which were collected to keep them from infiltrating drinking water supplies. Along with New York, the states of Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont have collected more than 932,500 gallons of PFAS since 2017, according to a Bloomberg Law report on July 16.
Original plans were to incinerate the stockpiles, however data collected by EPA and New York researchers suggest incineration would not destroy all of the firefighting foam and could, instead, release it into the atmosphere, which could have potential public health ramifications that are not yet fully understood.
PFAS Firefighting Foam Cancer Concerns
PFAS were first introduced into the manufacturing industry in the 1940’s, because of their ability to resist heat, grease, stains, and water. However, since then the chemicals have been linked to a myriad of adverse health effects including liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression, and cancer.
In addition to firefighting foams, PFASs are chemical substances used to manufacture a number of products, including food packaging materials, pizza boxes, popcorn bags, fabrics, nonstick cooking pans, and other products. The firefighting foam has been regularly used at military bases nationwide over the past decade during routine fire extinguishing exercises, and is increasingly used by civilian firefighters.
The chemicals are projected to take thousands of years to degrade, and past studies have shown their ability to enter and stay in the environment and human body through the air, dust, food, soil, and water. Previous U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies have shown PFAS chemicals primarily settle into the blood, kidney and liver, and could likely be detected in the blood of 98% of the U.S. population.
In June 2019, a federal investigation found that PFAS chemicals are commonly found in numerous food products, including meats, seafood, chocolate, cake and other products. However, the FDA released a statement indicating that the levels found do not raise health concerns, based on the best available science.
According to findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2012, exposure may also suppress the immune system and limit the ability of the body to create antibodies in response to childhood vaccines.
A number of chemical manufacturers face a growing number of PFAS firefighter foam lawsuits in federal courts nationwide, which are centralized in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina for pretrial proceedings. Plaintiffs say exposure to the chemicals have led to cases of cancer among military and civilian firefighters, and among those who live in communities whose water supplies have been contaminated.