There are new concerns about the family of carcinogenic chemicals familiar in the Mid-Ohio Valley because of their role in the manufacture of Teflon at DuPont Washington Works. In the early 2000’s, the manmade industrial solvent known as C8 or PFOA or perfluorooctanoic acid was detected in local water supplies as a result of the processes at Washington Works and subsequently became the subject of a class action lawsuit.
The conversation about the family of chemicals made famous by the Teflon toxin is heating up again – this time because of their role in firefighting. C8 or PFOA is a part of a larger family of chemicals with similar properties referred to by scientists as PFAS. PFAS is common to firefighting foams. Concerns over the foams prompted the Ohio State Fire Marshal to issue a directive regarding their tracking and use.
“Our office has recently learned of an emerging environmental issue that may be placing your firefighters and communities at risk,” said Ohio State Fire Marshal Jeff Hussey in the directive from the Ohio Department of Commerce. “Class-B firefighting foam Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF) contains PFAS, a chemical recently found to cause groundwater contamination and other serious environmental and human health hazards. While health impact studies are still being conducted, exposure (especially ingestion) to various PFAS substances can increase the prevalence of certain cancers, as well as cause damage to the liver, kidneys and other organs. PFAS are also extremely persistent in the environment and have been shown to bioaccumulate in wildlife.”
According to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, firefighting foams work by rapidly forming a film across the fire surface, preventing the release of flammable fuel vapors and disrupting access to oxygen.
In order to help “mitigate this issue and minimize the risk of danger to your communities” Hussey urged several precautions.
*Departments are to conduct an inventory of firefighting foams and keep strict records regarding the compounds. Hussey noted that foams manufactured prior to 2003 and military specification foams are even more hazardous.
*Departments are to only dispose of firefighting foams through hazardous waste incineration and never through sanitary sewer systems.
*Firefighting foams are never to be used for training purposes as repeated use at a training site can contaminate soil and groundwater. “Use of AFFF near well fields can result in contamination of an entire community’s drinking water,” Hussey said.
*Departments are to conduct a risk-benefit analysis prior to the use of any firefighting foams during an actual emergency involving flammable liquids. If the fire can be controlled with water or a Class A foam, which does not contain PFAS, those tactics are to be used. “If AFFF must be used for life-safety reasons, firefighters should only use the minimum amount needed, control runoff into waterways and report such usage to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.”
*All personnel are to be equipped with proper protective equipment to help minimize firefighters’ exposure.
“In the future, I expect Ohio will see regulation over these foams as several states have already established regulatory oversight,” Hussey said. “I also expect the foam manufacturers to be developing and promoting fluorine-free foams to replace AFFF for class-B fires. Going forward, it will also be vital to prepare for public inquiries regarding foam usage – including questions about class-A foams, which do not carry the same risks as AFFF. Your State Fire Marshal’s office will continue to work with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to provide education, guidance and mitigation strategies as we learn more about this serious safety risk.”
While the document from Hussey made no mention of it, there are also growing concerns about firefighters’ exposure through their turnout gear. “Unusually high rates of cancer” in firefighters prompted C8 attorney Rob Bilott to demand the US EPA formally study the matter.