News Feature | August 31, 2016

Air Force Changes Firefighting Foam Amid PFC Scandals

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

air force reg new.jpg

The U.S. Air Force is changing the substance it uses to fight fires amid water-contamination scandals across the country linked to perfluorinated compounds (PFCs).

“The Air Force said it awarded a $6.2 million contract [in August] to replace the firefighting foam,” CBS Denver reported. The aim is to “reduce the risk of possible contamination of soil and groundwater. The current foam is used where potentially catastrophic fuel fires can occur, such as in a plane crash, because it can rapidly extinguish the flames.”

In a press release, the Air Force labelled the replacement foam “environmentally responsible.” James Podolske Jr., the Air Force fire chief, said his military branch will use the foam “in a more environmentally responsible way that also makes our operations safer for the public.”

The Air Force is planning to incinerate its current stock of foam containing PFCs, according to Colorado Public Radio.

Other branches of the military are not taking the same steps as the Air Force, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. And the new foam still contains troubling ingredients, the report said. “The Air Force will use a new firefighting foam that contains no perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), but still has other PFCs and traces of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA),” the report said.

One of the most high-profile PFC contamination scandals is playing out in the Philadelphia suburbs. “Since 2014, 16 wells have been closed in Bucks and Montgomery Counties after they were found to be tainted with PFOA and PFOS, chemicals linked to cancer that leached into local water supplies from firefighting foam used at two now-closed naval air bases. The military is investigating potential contamination at more than 600 bases nationwide,” the Inquirer reported.

Contamination by PFCs is not limited to drinking water near military facilities. A study published in August in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters found that “drinking water supplies for 6 million U.S. residents exceed U.S. EPA’s lifetime health advisory (70 ng/L) for PFOS and PFOA.” The chemicals tend to be found near industrial sites that manufacture the compounds, near military fire training areas, and near wastewater treatment plants.

The EPA issued a health advisory in May about perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) exposure as various cities wage battles against the compounds, including Hoosick Falls, NY, and factory towns across the country. PFASs are industrial chemicals, and research has tied them to cancer, the Associated Press reported. The EPA links high levels of PFC exposure “to low birth weights, forms of cancer and other health problems,” Colorado Public Radio reported.

To read more about PFC issues visit Water Online’s Source Water Contamination Solutions Center.

Image credit: "U.S. Air Force," David Arbogast © 2015, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: