Firefighters and conservationists push for safer foam
Lansing – Michigan has eliminated more than 50,000 gallons of potentially harmful fire extinguisher foam since 2019.
Firefighters and conservationists say this is not enough.
Targeted Elimination Foam contains PFAS, an abbreviation for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl, a group of manufactured chemicals that have been used since the 1950s, but which scientists now associate with harmful effects on people and the environment. For this reason, Michigan strives to limit their use.
Exposure to modern fires means higher cancer risks, said Rep. Jeff Yaroch, R-Richmond. Constant exposure to PFAS foam increases this risk.
“When I was a firefighter, we didn’t know this foam was so bad for us,” Yaroch said. “Now that we know, we must act. “
Michigan is one of the top states on PFAS issues, particularly when it comes to fire-fighting foams, Yaroch said.
The foam is no longer allowed for training or equipment calibration, Yaroch said. But there is still a need to put out what are known as Class B fires, the kind that involve substances like gasoline, oil and jet fuel.
The state assists in disposal and encourages the purchase of safer foams.
The free collection and education programs have reduced unnecessary use, said Scott Dean, communications advisor for the Department of the Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
But disposal still has substantial costs for many communities, said Wixom Fire Chief Jeff Roberts, president of the Michigan Association of Fire Chiefs.
“Of course they took it away for free,” said Roberts. “But you lose the investment, and the foam is not cheap to start with.”
Plus, some fires still require it, he said. This includes airport fires where previously hazardous Teflon-based foam was used.
Firefighters are looking for alternatives, Yaroch said. Dow Chemical in Midland is looking for alternatives.
Meanwhile, firefighters are reporting the use of PFAS foams to a Michigan pollution hotline.
“We use the reports to make sure the cleanup is done,” Dean said, “and that the site is documented as a potentially contaminated site. “
Alternatives already exist, said former Oscoda Township supervisor Aaron Weed. The Oscoda Fire Department changed manufacturers when its old supplier was vague about the ingredients.
“We found one that very easily commits to being PFAS-free,” Weed said. “So we changed to make sure we were on the safe side. “
Other departments may be less aware of these alternatives, he said. Or they may be too busy to resolve these issues.
Other groups are encouraging the military and the Federal Aviation Administration to switch to options without PFAS.
A study by the Environmental Working Group found that PFAS-free foams are commonly used to fight Class B fires at airports, chemical companies and military installations around the world. The group says there is no reason to delay the change.
Michigan is moving in the right direction, Weed said. It may seem like it has more PFAS than other states, but that’s because of the large amount of testing being done here.
PFAS issues are significant at Oscoda due to the now disused Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Weed said. After the local fire department changed the foams, the Air Force continued to use the PFAS-based supply.
Weed thinks it’s because the Air Force wants to use up inventory and avoid replacement costs.
Given the Air Force’s involvement and Oscoda’s smaller population, Weed believes the issue is often overlooked.
“We kind of seem to be treated like we’re just people in the woods,” he said. “We don’t have to worry about them, it’s a federal problem.”
But all Michigan residents should be concerned, Weed said. Once it reaches a body of water, PFAS can quickly spread throughout the Great Lakes and even contaminate municipal systems.
It’s important to switch to new foam options, Yaroch said. “It’s better for our firefighters and it’s better for the environment.
PFAS in fire-fighting foams will be discussed at the Virtual Summit on Great Lakes PFAS from December 6-10.
The summit will take place on the Whova virtual conference platform and will be hosted by the Department of the Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. For more information, visit the EGLE website.