By Ismail Turay Jr.
© The New York Times Co.
DAYTON, OHIO » The Federal Aviation Administration is urging the nation’s airports to use firefighting foam that contains socalled “forever chemicals” only during emergencies.
The agency wants to cut back on the foam, which is used to fight jet fuel fires and other highly flammable liquid fires, to limit how much of the chemicals go into the environment.
Some firefighting foam contains the group of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — or PFAS. They can contaminate groundwater and affect human and animal health. They are dubbed forever chemicals because of their indestructible nature. Dayton International Airport uses firefighting foam, as required by the FAA. It received the agency’s memo and said it is awaiting further guidance for an alternative to firefighting foam that does not contain PFAS, airport officials said.
The airport firefighters train with the foam and test their equipment annually, but they do not discharge the compound into the environment, Dayton officials said. Instead, the foam is contained in their aircraft fire rescue vehicles, and it’s properly disposed of.
The Air Force has taken proactive measures to prevent potential impact of the chemicals to human health and drinking water supplies where its mission activities may have been a likely contributor, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base officials said in a statement.
“In 2015 the Department of Defense updated military specifications and identified a firefighting foam that does not contain detectable levels of PFOS or PFOA, and is in keeping with EPA guidelines. In 2019, the Air Force completed replacing legacy foam in firetrucks, stockpiles and hangar systems with the new formulation,” the base’s statement says.
The Air Force also has implemented stringent guidelines for the use of firefighting foam, including at Wright-Patterson, limiting its use to emergencies only and revising training protocols, the statement says. The Air Force also has taken measures to prevent uncontrolled foam discharges for system testing and training and treats a discharge as if it were a hazardous material spill.
Exposure to PFAS has been linked to an increase in cholesterol levels and some forms of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Infants and children, pregnant and nursing women, and those who have a compromised immune system might be at a higher risk of health effects from PFAS exposure.
Last year, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency detected PFAS in 24 southwest Ohio public drinking water systems. All but the water system at Aullwood Audubon Farm Discovery Center had traces of the toxins below the state’s recommended health advisory level of 70 parts-pertrillion. A part-per-trillion is the equivalent of a grain of sand in an Olympic-size pool.
In the past two years, the FAA has conducted research to find alternatives to firefighting foam that do not contain PFAS, officials said. They have performed more than 400 research tests with 15 commercially available and prototype products. Additional research is underway on new foam formulations, the agency said in a statement.
Hydrogeologist Linda Aller of Westerville-based Bennett and Williams Environmental Consultants Inc., has sampled more than two dozen private drinking water wells for PFAS in Montgomery County in the past year. She said firefighting foam is bad for the environment, but it’s highly effective when a plane catches fire. Until there’s an alternative that does not contain PFAS, she agrees with the FAA that it should be used only during emergencies, particularly if human life is at stake.
“If the commercial airplane that I’m flying on is coming in with an engine that’s on fire, or during takeoff something catches on fire and there’s all that fuel in the tank, I want them to use that (firefighting foam containing PFAS),” she said. “It’s quick, it’s effective, and it will save your life. Now, in all other cases, not so much.”