On February 10th, Washington state senators passed a bill that would effectively ban the use of toxic chemicals in firefighting foam. The chemicals – perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (or PFAS, for short) – have been found in drinking water sources around the state and have been linked to tumors, liver toxicity and other significant health issues. Firefighters are exposed to increased risk due to their proximity to the substance. The bill also contains a provision requiring manufacturers to disclose when PFAS chemicals are used in firefighting uniforms. If passed, the ban would go into effect on July 1st, 2020.
Industries who profit off PFAS have expressed dismay at the measure, arguing that legislators should employ safety measures rather than implement a complete ban. Bryan Goodman, of Fluorocouncil, spoke with Bloomberg Environment: “The ban that Washington state legislators are considering would remove firefighting foams that are uniquely effective at combatting certain types of flammable liquid fires.” He continued, “Such a ban would be shortsighted and unnecessary, particularly given that other options are available to protect the environment.”
A recent report, distributed by the Washington State Department of Health, averred that PFAS chemicals “have been found to cause” a number of disturbing health conditions, including suppressed immune systems, reproductive harm, hormonal changes and developmental problems. The report goes on to say that PFAS can be located in a number of everyday products. These include food wrappers, drinking water, fish from contaminated sources, floor polish and other household materials. Once PFAS finds its way into the body, it can take years for it to leave. In some cases, women have been known to pass PFAS to their infant child via breast milk. As a result, the baby’s “serum levels” can “surpass maternal levels during infancy.”
The report was released as a part of the Department of Ecology’s PFAS Chemical Action Plan, which seeks to identify the environmental impact of the substance and to devise plans for reducing said impact. The Departments of Ecology and Health recommended that tests be carried out in high-risk areas, such as airports and firefighting training facilities, where “[f]oam use is a big deal,” according to Chad Cross, a higher-up at the state’s training academy.
Senate Majority Caucus Vice Chair Lisa Wellman, who sponsored the bill, is optimistic about the outcome: “It’s my sense that the fire-fighting foam bill will likely pass to the governor.” Wellman continued, “It’s kind of a no-brainer.” Democratic senator Kevin Van De Wege expressed hope after the measure passed the senate: “Hopefully, with this bill passing, we will limit future contamination.” The bill now rests in the House, where a public hearing was scheduled to take place earlier this month.
Wellman and Van De Wege may be mindful of the fact that, if passed, the ban would be the first of its kind in the US. That’s at least what Ivy Sager-Rosenthal – of Toxic-Free Future, an advocacy group in favor of the bill – told the Seattle Times. In fact, the federal government has yet to pass any regulations on the use of PFAS in firefighter foam, leaving state senators no choice but to include a provision allowing for the use of PFAS in federally sanctioned situations.
The US Military has been using PFAS firefighting foam since the 1970s, and they’ve been using it in the backyards of America. On Whidbey Island in Washington State, people like Bob Farnsworth have come to realize the damning effects of these toxic chemicals. On his Eden-esque property near the Puget Sound, Farnsworth lamented his inability to sell the house and retire. He and his wife now wonder if the diseases they’ve experienced were linked to PFAS. The Navy acknowledged the damage by providing bottled water to local residents but did little else to prevent further occurrences. In fact, in an attempt to address the problem of contamination they’ve spent billions of dollars to synthesize a “new environmentally responsible six carbon chain formula.” There are few reasons to believe that the difference between six and eight carbons could be significant enough to radically alter the environmental impact of the chemical.