Firefighting chemical linked to water safety concerns

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Firefighting foam is linked to harmful chemicals, but firefighters say they don’t have effective alternatives. Image: Eugene Oliver, U.S. Air Force

By Jeremy Wahr
Capital News Service

A firefighting foam has been linked to a group of chemicals known to be harmful to infants, toddlers and pregnant women. But it is still kept on hand because firefighters say they don’t have effective alternatives.

Detection of the chemicals, known as PFAS, has led to the creation of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, a multi-agency organization dedicated to understanding the far-reaching effects of the chemical and educating the public on the threat it poses.

“It’s reason for concern because it’s an issue of public health,” said Katie Parrish, communications director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.

The Michigan PFAS Action Response Team has asked State Fire Marshal Kevin Sehlmeyer to survey over 1,000 fire departments to identify the amount of PFAS in firefighting foam, according to the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.

Although the survey has not been completed, the response team and other agencies have evidence of the dangers of the foam used to contain fuel and electrical fires and in training drills.

Firefighters and certain military personnel are required to use the foam. The response team believes the military’s heavy use of it contributed to elevated levels of the chemicals in Lake Margrethe, a lake adjacent to Camp Grayling. About a dozen similar sites are also affected.

Because of the danger, many newer firefighting foams don’t contain PFAS, said David Glotzbach, president of the Michigan Association of Fire Chiefs and a 33-year veteran firefighter.

“However,” Glotzbach said in an email, “these products are not effective in extinguishing flammable liquid fires.”

The Department of Environmental Quality has 35 active investigations for potential PFAS contamination across the state. It has begun testing public drinking water for the contaminant throughout the state, said Scott Dean, the agency’s communications director.

The testing will be finished by the end of the year and the agency has only found one public drinking supply – in Parchment – with dangerous levels of the chemical, he said.

Some commercial businesses have fought the testing. In May, the managers of Gerald R. Ford International Airport attempted to deny DEQ testing, claiming government overreach. The DEQ eventually tested the airport and found elevated levels of the chemical.

PFAS is dangerous in part because it does not break down in the environment or the human body, leading to its designation as a “forever chemical” by the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.

The chemical is produced across the country and used not just for firefighting but for products such as stain-resistant shoes and no-stick pans. Waste from these production sites cannot always be treated by generic wastewater treatment plants, according to the Michigan Environmental Council. Specifically, when several industrial buildings discharge waste directly into a treatment plant, the chemicals will still survive.

Meghan Swain, executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health, says the federal government should be more proactive in regulating PFAS.

“Michigan is the only state talking about PFAS chemicals,” Swain said referring to the formation of the state’s PFAS Action Response Team. “The EPA should have sounded the alarm years ago.”

The EPA says 70 parts per trillion is the limit on PFAS for safe drinking water. But some groups, such as the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, say that it is too lenient.

“The state is using the EPA’s standard but it’s critical to understand that this EPA standard is an unenforceable, advisory-only recommendation and only covers two of the many PFAS chemicals,” Parrish said.

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