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Fire chiefs seek rules for disposal of risky firefighting foam
Fire retardant containing PFAS still could be used in case of emergencies.
Fifteen years ago, “way before anyone knew” about the dangers of the PFAS chemicals within, the Walker Fire Department purchased a stash of firefighting foam from the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids to be used during training.
Now, roughly 100 gallons of foam purchased from the airport — stored in plastic in an unused building — have nowhere to go, said Walker Fire Chief Bob Walker.
That makes it crucial that a bill package to limit the use of PFAS-containing firefighting foams sets up a clear disposal mechanism for the materials, some fire chiefs say.
PFAS chemicals are linked to cancer, immune system dysfunction and issues with child development, according to the National Institutes of Health. They were included in firefighting foams used on fuel or petroleum fires, said Pat Parker, the fire chief of the Grand Traverse Metro Emergency Services Authority.
Nearly half of the 700 Michigan fire departments surveyed in October 2018 reported they had a supply of the foam on hand.
The bill package would require the Department of Environmental Quality to accept and dispose of firefighting foams containing PFAS chemicals. It also would require fire departments to report when such foams are used and bar firefighters from training with the foams, among other provisions.
Sponsors include Reps. Sue Allor, R-Wolverine; Jeff Yaroch, R-Richmond Township; Joe Bellino, R-Monroe; and Tommy Brann, R-Wyoming.
“They’re going to have to report where that location was, what type of product they used, what cleanup methods were initiated,” Allor said in a statement. “It’s going to allow Michigan to better track and act on PFAS contamination.”
Figuring out the protocol for disposal of PFAS-containing foams is the key issue, as the Walker Fire Department won’t use the old materials in any situation now that the dangers of PFAS chemicals are known, Walker said.
“We’re waiting to see what type of legislation or rules that come down of how do you dispose of what you have,” he said. “I’ve heard nothing about proper disposal. We’re just kind of waiting for the Fire Marshal’s Division or the Legislature.”
Despite uncertainty about what to do with the old foam, Walker isn’t concerned about leakage as it sits in storage. It would take “about 3,000 years” for the plastic containers to degrade to the point of leaking, Walker said.
Departments across Michigan have been told by the state fire marshal that “if we have to use (PFAS-containing foam), then use it,” Walker said. If it must be used, the marshal urges precautions to be taken, including using sand to try to contain the material and sandbagging storm drains to prevent runoff.
Walker’s department may be able to go without PFAS-containing foams, but budget constraints can make it hard for other departments to make a quick shift to safer materials.
Of the 700 departments surveyed by the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, 45% still had a supply of PFAS-containing foam for a total of 32,000 gallons statewide.
Foams without PFAS chemicals are “not cheap,” Walker said, as a 5-gallon pail of foam concentrate can cost more than $100. For large incidents like tanker fires, hundreds to thousands of gallons can be necessary, so departments are sometimes left with no choice but to use foams now known to come with health risks.
“You have to weigh what’s worse for the environment: Letting a large tanker fire burn or using a foam that contains PFAS,” Walker said. “That’s a question I think everybody is asking, at least those who still have it and are using it.”
In cases where PFAS-containing foam would be necessary, the bill package would codify a requirement for firefighters to be trained in its use. But that’s already covered under a “right-to-know” law requiring employers to educate employees about dangerous materials they work with, Walker said.
Under the bills, “every firefighter will be trained in use and disposal,” Walker said. “We already do that — why do we need another bill to do things we’re already doing?”
It’s already common practice to let employees know when they’re going to be exposed to any chemical, let alone a known carcinogen, Parker said. The right-to-know law and Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards would create a lot of overlap with the proposed legislation.
“We all agree that we need to take this seriously and do whatever we can to limit the amount of its use,” Parker said. “Our concern is that we already know about it and we’re already taking actions to remedy it.”
Parker said he doesn’t know of any firefighters with health problems that can be tied back to their use of PFAS-containing foam.
Walker also is unaware of “extended health issues” caused by the foams, although he said he didn’t want to speak for all retired firefighters. The concentration of PFAS chemicals in firefighting foams is “not that great,” he said.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have become a public health concern largely because of their longer-term impacts: To the environment in the form of seepage into groundwater and to humans as they drink contaminated water over their lifetimes.
PFAS chemicals were used in other consumer products like cookware, food packaging and stain repellents. Contamination sites across Michigan largely stem from the substances’ disposal in landfills or use in industrial processes; however, some are linked to firefighting foams.
The Ford Airport is a known contamination site after PFAS-containing foams were used in federally required firefighting training from its 1963 opening to the mid-1990s, according to the Department of Environmental Quality.
In December 1995, a Grand Traverse County tire fire burned for more than 20 days, evacuating 62 residents from their homes. PFAS-containing foam was deployed, but the fire was not contained until the tires were buried. The site of the fire is now listed as a PFAS contamination site.
A former Holland paint packaging facility that used PFAS-containing foam in its fire suppression system has been listed as a contamination site, although it is unknown which materials were released that caused the PFAS to be detected.