An Invisible Danger: State Must Eliminate Toxic Firefighting Foam, But Contamination Persists | News

In the early 1980s, Indianapolis firefighter Tom Hanify was part of a training exercise using foam spray to put out a controlled house fire. After Hanify and the crew brought the fire under control, they just stayed to play in the foam.

He said back then firefighters were just having fun. Now, looking back, there was nothing funny about it.

That’s because Hanify now realizes that foam contains per- and polyfluoroalkyl, “forever” chemicals that don’t break down or accumulate in the human body. Recent research has linked it to at least eight different types of cancer.

“We were literally playing with this stuff and had no idea what we were doing,” said Hanify, who now serves as president of the Professional Fire Fighters Union of Indiana.


It was the same story for nearly every fire department in Indiana that used what is known as aqueous film-forming foam over the next four decades. All of this contained per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), exposing countless firefighters to man-made chemicals.

Today, these firefighters are paying the price.

According to data from the International Association of Fire Fighters, cancer caused 66% of career firefighter deaths on the job from 2002 to 2019. PFAS have been linked to four of the most common cancers among firefighters , including testicular cancers, mesothelioma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and prostate cancers.

Indiana State Fire Marshal Joel Thacker said eight firefighters who died in the line of duty were added to the State Law Enforcement and Fire Department Memorial last year. Indiana located on the west side of the Capitol building. Six of them died of cancer.

“We know it’s a big health issue, so anything I can do as a state fire marshal to educate and eradicate the ways we can get sick from this profession, I want to try to do it,” Thacker said.

And that’s exactly what the state will start doing next month when it begins collecting PFAS-containing foam from fire departments for free.

Gov. Eric Holcomb announced the program last month, saying more than 200 departments have already signed up for a total of 50,000 gallons of foam to be removed and destroyed.


The state program to eliminate PFAS foam comes after state lawmakers in 2020 passed a new law banning its use for training purposes. This has forced departments to start using alternative foams that do not contain PFAS.

But that law created its own problem, Hanify said.

“Where are you putting this thing? Where do you store it when you have it? he said. “Most departments have it stored right there in the fire station where people live or work.”

Hanify said the new program solves this problem.

“I’m glad the state took this initiative because a lot of these fire departments don’t have the money to get rid of this stuff, or the expertise,” he said. “So that’s a reason to celebrate. It’s a big deal.

Thacker said that’s especially true, given that Indiana is only the third state in the nation to offer this kind of service. He said more than 30 other states are looking at PFAS, and nine of them are considering implementing a similar phase-out program.

Free moss pickup and disposal is more critical than ever, Thacker said, as fewer companies will provide the service. Indeed, as PFAS come under closer scrutiny by state and federal regulators, fewer companies will be allowed to remove them, driving up costs.

“If it’s considered a hazardous material, only certain companies will be allowed to pick it up,” he said. “I think it’s only going to get more expensive as we learn more.”

Thacker said the price increase has already started to happen. He said he knew of a fire department that paid $3,000 to dispose of 50 gallons of foam.

Now, the new state program aims to remove this financial obstacle and the burden of finding a private company by doing it for free.

But although more than 200 departments have signed up, there are many more who have not. Thacker said there are 841 fire departments in the state, and the vast majority of them likely have PFAS foam stocked.

He said the key will be educating departments about the program and encouraging them to take advantage of a free service that could have a direct impact on the health of firefighters.

Holcomb said in March when he announced the program that he hoped more departments would sign up so the state could do everything possible to protect Hoosier firefighters.

“Indiana chose to be a leader in this PFAS foam program because, frankly, fighting fires is hard enough without having to worry about these dangerous chemicals,” he said.

But even at the start of the program, PFAS in foam and dozens of other consumer products poured into Indiana groundwater for decades, not only exposing firefighters to the harmful health effects of these substances .

Now, as the state moves to help firefighters, is it already too late to clean up groundwater contaminated with the chemical “forever”?


The National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress last year established a new requirement for the Department of Defense. Military bases where PFAS had been detected in groundwater were required to notify farmers and farm operators within a mile downstream of the threat of contamination to their property.

The Grissom Air Reserve base north of Kokomo had to send notifications to two farmers. The Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center in southwest Indiana sent 43 letters, according to a DOD report released in June.

Both military installations have active fire departments that have trained and used PFAS foams for years.

At Grissom, a 2018 DOD investigation found the base had groundwater levels of PFAS that exceeded EPA lifetime health advisory levels. However, wells used for drinking water were well below advisory levels.

No findings were reported to Crane in 2018, but a survey last year found PFAS in groundwater at the base, according to the DOD.

Although fire-fighting foam is a major contributor to PFAS in groundwater and the environment, it’s just one of many, said Indra Frank, director of environmental health for the Hoosier Environmental Council.

PFAS are found in food packaging, carpets, non-stick pans, fabrics and electronics. Many of these products end up in landfills, where the PFAS slowly seep into the soil before ending up in groundwater.

“I’m afraid there are a lot of contributors,” Frank said. “Foam is one of them, and I’m glad it’s being addressed, but these compounds have been used in so many, many ways.”

Due to their widespread use and persistence in the environment, many PFAS are found in the blood of people and animals around the world. Those who have been exposed to chemicals for a long time, such as firefighters, are at the greatest risk of developing cancer.

But as more and more PFAS find their way into the environment, the more likely ordinary residents are to have prolonged exposure to the chemicals.

The rise in PFAS comes as federal regulators have yet to set a threshold on how much of the chemical can be safely found in water or soil before it needs to be cleaned up.

The Environmental Protection Agency currently has a health advisory limit in place, but these advisories are not enforceable or regulatory and only provide technical information on health effects.

However, the EPA is taking steps right now to set enforceable PFAS limits. The agency released a four-year roadmap last year for how it will track, restrict and clean up chemicals across the country.

“The risks posed by PFAS require the Agency to attack the problem on multiple fronts at the same time,” the EPA said in its planning document. “EPA must leverage the full range of statutory authorities to address the human health and environmental risks of PFAS.”

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management has also started its own program to test for PFAS in drinking water. The agency requires water treatment facilities to test for chemicals in raw and treated water. Results are collected until May 2023.

Hanify said that while his primary concern is to protect the health of firefighters by eliminating exposure to PFAS in foam, it is also important that state and federal agencies take action to protect the public.

“It’s not just with firefighters,” he said. “More and more of these substances are found in the environment, and we need to know more about it and how to counteract these chemicals in our bodies.”

Frank said any effort to find and clean up PFAS from the environment should be applauded, such as the state’s PFAS foam elimination program. But with chemicals used in so many products for so many years, how communities deal with contaminants is likely to be tricky.

“It’s a complicated question, and it will take the company some time to unravel our relationship with these compounds,” she said.

Lee J. Murillo