The hunt is on for a safe alternative to PFAS-containing firefighting foam, which has been used so much that traces of it can be found in most water supplies in the country, as well as the bodies of most Americans.
Also known as “forever chemicals,” per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been used for decades in a range of products, including non-stick pans, stain-resistant fabrics, and food packaging. They’re favored for their durability, as well as their “slick” resistance to surface tension.
But they’re also deadly.
At high enough levels, these chemicals can cause immune problems, birth defects, thyroid disorders, and cancer. One of the most common uses of PFAS is in firefighting foams, particularly in airports and military facilities throughout the country.
Hundreds of military bases have been confirmed as PFAS contamination sites, and the Department of Defense has estimated the cleanup process will cost billions of dollars and last decades. Noting the headwinds, some state and local governments have already moved to ban PFAS-containing firefighting foams.
The Hunt for a New Foam
Regardless of when, how, or if PFAS is banned, there remains an honest need for safe and effective firefighting foams — specifically, a replacement for Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF). AFFF is primarily used to douse and control fuel fires, which is why they’re so common at military bases and airports.
The challenge is in making sure the replacement also does not end up poisoning people and wrecking the environment.
"We have a history of substituting one hazardous chemical with another that may not be any better," Philippe Grandjean, an epidemiologist at the University of Southern Denmark, told Environmental Health News (EHN).
A number of companies in both Europe and North America are pushing research and development teams to find a suitable alternative. While some such foams already exist, their effectiveness is not quite up to snuff.
Moreover, when it comes to private industry, there’s little guarantee that a product is safe or environmentally friendly just because a company says it is. Dupont and 3M, for example, knew about the dangers of PFAS chemicals as early as the 1950s but continued to promote them as safe well into the 2000s.
For its part, the U.S. Department of Defense has also pledged some funds for finding a safe PFAS alternative.
The Foreseeable Future
Clearly, there is a need for an independent organization that can scientifically assess the safety of any potential alternatives. To service that need, a U.S. nonprofit called Clean Production Action launched a certification program for PFAS-free firefighting foams.
The GreenScreen Certified Standard for Firefighting Foams will ensure that PFAS-free foams are in fact free of PFAS, as well as a host of other harmful chemicals. Since launching, dozens of companies have joined to promote any of more than 100 different PFAS-free foams.
Such a certification could go a long way in driving purchase decisions for airports, fire departments, and military sites.
"We want to make sure we don't do any additional harm to the environment or firefighters,” said Randy Kraus, a fire chief at Seattle’s Sea-Tac International Airport, as quoted by EHN. “As a purchaser, we want to make sure a product is tested by an independent third party. That gives us confidence.”
In the meantime, some sites of known contamination will continue to use AFFF for the foreseeable future.
Despite some state and local bans, airports are federally regulated, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) currently requires all airports in the country to use PFAS-based firefighting foams — at least until it completes its own review of the substances. Additionally, the military has until 2024 to phase out the use of PFAS-containing foams.
So, at least for the next few years, PFAS-containing firefighting foams may continue to leach into groundwater and other sources of drinking water.