Millions of people across the U.S. could be exposed to drinking water contaminated with chemicals from firefighting foam, according to a recent study.
The combination of toxic chemicals in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) has been found in public water supplies from California to Rhode Island and researchers from UC Berkeley and Harvard University report these highly fluorinated chemicals are linked to cancer, obesity, high cholesterol and endocrine problems, among other concerns.
Firefighters are not always using water to attack stubborn or dangerous fires. Often, they use specially formulated foams that, along with being wet, can take away the oxygen content in a fire. However, the study published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters outlines environmental contamination across the country with these potentially hazardous materials.
Study co-author Dr. Arlene Blum, founding director of the Green Science Policy Institute, said the major sources of contamination are near military bases and airports where firefighter training occurs, industrial sites where the chemicals are made and wastewater treatment plants.
Blum told AccuWeather foams are good at extinguishing aviation fires and other flammable liquid fires but may be overused in firefighting practice activities.
"During the practice drills, large volumes of these toxic chemicals are washed into lakes, rivers, streams and they end up in ground water and in drinking water," Blum said. "We think that chemicals that are this persistent and potentially toxic should only be used when they are essential, not just for training."
The study suggests at least 6 million people across the U.S. in 2016 had drinking water that exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency's lifetime health advisory for certain acids associated with the foams.
Researchers say public water systems in the following states had at least one sample above the EPA's advisory level: Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Washington, Wisconsin, West Virginia and three American territories.
The study indicates many of the public water systems in these states have already taken actions to address these situations, but researchers said these particular chemicals never break down in the environment.
"When you create these molecules and use them when you don't really need them, you are creating toxic molecules that are going to be around a million years from now," Blum said.
She said using water during training exercises is a much healthier and less expensive option.
Effects on wildlife and habitat
Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances in certain types of suppressive foam have been used for decades and experts say the chemicals are not only affecting humans.
"If that foam gets into the water system, it can choke fish gills or coat amphibians and that is a problem for aquatic life," Evan Duffey, AccuWeather long-range meteorologist and Pennsylvania certified wildland firefighter, said.
Duffey said AFFF is used on a regular basis for house and car fires in the overhaul stages, after the fire has been contained, to eliminate any possibility for flareups. And although he said firefighters try to maintain distance from any water sources when using the chemicals, it's possible foamy water will end up in ditches or nearby streams and ponds.
"If the foam is in static water like a lake or a pond, it could throw off the pH or create a layer on the surface that can cause environmental issues," he said.
Duffey said fire officials will use absorbent booms and pads for hazardous material containment but not until the scene is safe. A knowledgeable fire chief or incident commander will determine the type and amount of environmental cleanup with each situation.
"The required hazardous materials training has raised awareness about these issues," Duffey said. "The techniques to take care of them are also much more in the forefront than they used to be."
But training can only go so far. Firefighters cannot control the weather they will encounter at a scene. Duffey said wind and rain both have an impact on where foam decides to go. Wind will push fluids around, allowing them to spread more easily, and damming or diverting bodies of water during a rain event is more difficult and requires extra absorbent materials.
"It's much easier to contain a hazardous materials release during calm, dry weather than during windy, wet weather," Duffey said.