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Legislation proposed in the U.S. Senate calls for the defense department to phase out the use of aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), amid concerns that the fire foam has caused widespread water contamination near military bases and poses serious health risks for firefighters.
Earlier this month the Senate Armed Services Committee marked up and passed fiscal year 2021’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which contains new provisions seeking to address concerns over the firefighter foam, which has been used by military and civilian firefighters since the mid 1960s.
The committee issued an executive summary (PDF) on the NDAA on June 11, following last week’s hearings. The bill must now be approved by the full Senate.
Aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) has been used 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 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 per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
The proposed legislation includes provisions that requires the Secretary of Defense to “conduct a survey and market research of available firefighting technologies or substances to facilitate the phase-out of fluorinated aqueous film-forming foam,” according to the executive summary. The bill also increases spending for an ongoing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) assessment of human health risks from PFAS, and increases funding for Defense-wide Operation and Maintenance in order to address PFAS health concerns which may impact the Military Housing Privatization Initiative.
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 (CDC) 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 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.