Equilibrium & Sustainability

Nearly 900 spills of toxic firefighting foam occurred over past 30 years

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Nearly 900 spills of firefighting foam containing toxic “forever chemicals” have occurred across the country since 1990, new data published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revealed.

The dataset, provided to the EPA by the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center, showed that there have been 897 spills or usage reports of aqueous form filming foam (AFFF), a material used to fight jet fuel fires at military bases and civilian airports.

AFFF is one of the most common sources of forever chemicals, the umbrella group for thousands of compounds known as per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). 

The chemicals have been linked to a variety of illnesses including like thyroid cancer, testicular cancer and thyroid disease. They linger in the human body and in the environment because they are resistant to most processes that naturally break down other chemicals.

While they are most known for their presence in AFFF and industrial discharge, they are also key ingredients in a variety of household products, such as nonstick pans, waterproof apparel and cosmetics. 

Many of the sites that had the biggest AFFF releases in the National Response Center database were Department of Defense and other federal facilities. Others included commercial harbors and civilian firefighting events, according to an analysis of the dataset conducted by the Environmental Working Group.

The largest discharge of AFFF to end up in a waterway was a 805,000-gallon event at Melbourne Orlando International Airport in Florida in 1995, when a hanger fire prompted the AFFF system to release the foam, the analysis found.

The next biggest spill to leech into a waterway was a 140,000-gallon spill in Guntersville, Ala., in 1998, when a wall collapsed during a fire alarm test and discharged AFFF into Lake Gunters. Following this event was a 100,0000-gallon spill during a power outage in San Antonio, Texas, in 1992.

The Department of Defense was responsible for six of the 10 largest spills listed in the dataset, according to the Environmental Working Group.

“It is unclear whether surrounding community water supplies were contaminated by PFAS from the spills or use of the aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, that contained the chemicals,” a statement from the group said.

The Air Force first started using AFFF in 1970 as part of firefighting and crash response exercises and emergency response efforts, the Defense Department branch previously told The Hill. AFFF is “mission critical because it is the most efficient extinguishing method for petroleum-based fires,” and the Federal Aviation Administration also mandates its use at both military and civilian airport fire stations, the Air Force stated.

In recent years, the Air Force restricted the use of AFFF to emergencies only.

The EPA noted that the National Response Center “serves as an emergency call center that fields initial reports for pollution and railroad incidents,” and that the data “has not been validated or investigated by a federal/state response agency.”

The records on AFFF spills were published alongside a variety of other Excel files as part of the EPA’s PFAS National Datasets. Among the other datasets are ambient environmental samples for PFAS, drinking water tests, PFAS manufacture and imports, PFAS detections at hazardous waste sites, Clean Water Act discharge monitoring and industrial facilities that may be handling PFAS.

The national organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) responded to the release of the data on Thursday, stating  that the publication only occurred following three years’ worth of requests from the group.

“We are glad this information was finally released,” Tim Whitehouse, executive director of PEER, said in a statement. “It will provide regulators and researchers with important information about the growing crises of PFAS pollution in the United States.”

Tags Coast Guard Environmental Protection Agency EPA Firefighting foam PFAS

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