Equilibrium & Sustainability

Gillibrand, Kildee to introduce bill to protect firefighters from toxic ‘forever chemicals’

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) will be introducing bicameral legislation next week that seeks to ban firefighting foam that contains toxic “forever chemicals.”

The PFAS Firefighter Protection Act would prohibit the manufacture, import and sale of all firefighting foam that includes these chemicals — also called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — within two years of enactment, according to a copy of the bill exclusively obtained by The Hill.

Known as forever chemicals due to their propensity to linger in the human body and in the environment, PFAS are most notorious for their presence in aqueous film forming foam (AFFF), used to fight jet fuel fires on military bases and at civilian airports.

Also present in industrial discharge and a variety of household products, PFAS are linked to kidney cancer, thyroid disease, testicular cancer and other illnesses.

“PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam jeopardize the health, safety, and well-being of firefighters who have put their lives on the line to protect our communities,” Gillibrand said in a statement.

“To make matters worse, the runoff from this foam can quickly lead to widespread PFAS contamination in the drinking water of surrounding communities near the facilities where it is used,” she added.

Both military bases and civilian airports have been using AFFF for decades, although the Air Force has limited its use to emergencies only. Such widespread use of the foam has led to contamination of adjacent waterways, impacting those who live or work near such facilities.

Firefighters who combat jet fuel blazes — and therefore endure prolonged exposure to PFAS-based foams — face a greater risk of developing associated cancers and diseases, the Democratic lawmakers noted. Experts estimate that the drinking water supplies of some 200 million Americans are polluted by these compounds, they added.

“For decades, firefighters have been exposed to toxic PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam, which are known to cause cancer and other health issues,” Kildee said in a statement.

“Our firefighters put themselves in harm’s way to protect us –– and we must protect them by getting rid of PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam,” he continued. “I am proud to introduce this legislation with Sen. Gillibrand to protect our brave firefighters.”

If passed by Congress, the legislation would ensure that “no person may manufacture, import, process, or distribute in commerce any aqueous film forming foam for use in training and firefighting that contains a per- or polyfluoroalkyl substance,” according to the bill’s text.

The bill would also set firm deadlines for prohibiting the use of AFFF firefighting foams at airports, with a goal of doing so by 2024.

Congress has already passed legislation removing the legal requirement that PFAS-based foams be used at commercial airports and military installations, the lawmakers noted in a statement.

A section of that law, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, said that within three years of its passage — October 5, 2018 — the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) must “not require the use of fluorinated chemicals to meet the performance standards” determined in its Aircraft Fire Extinguishing Agents rules. 

While those three years have now passed, the FAA has yet to update regulations regarding the use of PFAS-free firefighting foams at airports, Gillibrand and Kildee pointed out in a November letter to the agency’s administrator.

In response to an inquiry from The Hill as to why such updates have not yet occurred, an FAA spokesperson said that it “continues to evaluate firefighting PFAS-free foam that protects the flying public, human health and the environment.”

“To limit the use of foam with PFAS, the FAA recommends it be used only in an actual emergency,” the spokesperson said. “That recommendation was part of an alert sent to airports in early October.”

In their November letter, Gillibrand and Kildee acknowledged the Oct. 4 alert, which stipulated that airport standards no longer require that foams contain fluorinated chemicals.

The lawmakers stressed, however, that because the FAA has not yet authorized the use of any alternative PFAS-free foams or provided information about how to apply performance standards to such foams, commercial airports have not yet been able to make the switch.

The FAA spokesperson said that since 2019, the administration has taken steps to minimize the need to discharge PFAS-containing firefighting foam, aside from during aircraft emergencies. In such cases, the FAA encourages airport operations to adhere to containment and cleanup requirements for discharged foam, the spokesperson added.

An FAA testing facility has conducted more than 400 research tests on 15 commercially available and prototype products, while additional research is ongoing on new foam formulations, according to the spokesperson.

Liz Hitchcock, director of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, stressed that “fluorine-free foams are available and in use around the world, with more and more entering the marketplace.”

“Safer alternatives to PFAS in firefighting foams are already widely available,” agreed Melanie Benesh, an Environmental Working Group attorney, who expressed hopes that the new bill “will finally turn off the tap on this use of PFAS.”

Like the FAA, the Department of Defense is also considering non-AFFF foams, according to a February briefing before Congress.

Evaluating factors including cost and effectiveness, the submitted briefing concluded that “there are many viable alternatives for replacing AFFF” but that “no single technology is suitable for every situation.”

The briefing also acknowledged that, per one section of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, the secretary of the Navy must publish a military specification for a fluorine-free — meaning, PFAS-free — firefighting agent for all military installations by Jan. 31, 2023.

That same section also stipulates the use of fluorinated AFFF on military installations must be prohibited by Oct. 1, 2024, according to the briefing.

While Gillibrand and Kildee’s PFAS Firefighter Protection Act focuses on airports and the FAA, rather than the military, the goal of replacing PFAS-laden foam remains similar. And this is not the first time that Gillibrand has surfaced the issue as potential legislation.

In February of last year, she announced intentions to introduce an earlier rendition of the PFAS Firefighter Protection Act, but that bill did not end up materializing.

“After extensive engagement with stakeholders, our staff made bill text edits to reflect our understanding of upcoming changes to the [FAA’s] firefighting safety standards, which will inform the implementation of this policy if passed into law,” a Gillibrand aide told The Hill.

Staff members, the aide added, worked with both firefighters and the FAA “to ensure the changes made in the bill would be feasible without undermining safety standards.” In addition, they have been working with the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to position the bill for inclusion in an upcoming PFAS package, according to the aide.

That package, discussed by committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) in a December hearing, would build upon both the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent PFAS Strategic Roadmap and the PFAS Action Act passed by the House last summer.

Edward A. Kelly, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, stressed the importance of the Gillibrand-Kildee bill, noting that the 326,000 members of his organization support a ban on AFFF foams.

“Fire fighters serve as this nation’s frontline emergency responders,” Kelly said in a statement. “While combatting fires, our members are exposed to PFAS-laden firefighting foams.”

“This exposure subjects us to higher risks of occupational cancer and other life-threatening diseases,” he continued. “The time has long passed to accept this as a hazard of our work.”

Emphasizing the harmful impacts of PFAS-laden AFFF on firefighters, military communities and the “innocent families who live near these facilities,” Gillibrand contended that “it has to stop.”

“My PFAS Firefighter Protection Act would do just that by permanently banning the use of harmful firefighting foam in the United States,” she added.

Tags Dan Kildee Dan Kildee Firefighters Firefighting Firefighting foam forever chemicals Kirsten Gillibrand Kirsten Gillibrand PFAS PFAS chemicals toxic chemicals

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