Firefighters have "unacceptably" high levels of PFAS in blood, new report says


A state law banning PFAS-based foam doesn't apply to the military. - U.S. AIR FORCE/EDDIE GREEN
  • A state law banning PFAS-based foam doesn't apply to the military.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, a group of toxic chemicals found in firefighting foam, have polluted water supplies near 206 military installations where the foam was used, according to a map created by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group and researchers at Northeastern University.

Last year, a study showed that people who lived near one such site, Peterson Air Force Base, had abnormally high levels of PFAS — often called "forever chemicals" — in their blood years after water districts changed sources or filtration methods to make their water safe to drink.

Recent research now suggests PFAS also present a danger to firefighters.

According to a new scientific review by IPEN, a global nonprofit network of public interest groups, firefighters who've used PFAS-based foam have "unacceptably elevated blood levels" of two PFAS chemicals, perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS)  and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS).

Frighteningly, it's not just veteran firefighters who have elevated blood levels of PFOS and PFHxS.

"Elevated blood levels are found not just in longserving personnel who may have been exposed to legacy PFOS-containing [aqueous film forming foams, or AFFFs], but also in much younger firefighters and recruits who have never used or been trained with these foams," the report says. That could be equipment and training areas contaminated long ago by the "forever chemicals."

Most research showing PFAS has contributed to negative health effects in humans has focused on perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA (linked to cancer) and PFOS (linked to thyroid hormone effects).

Likewise, the Environmental Protection Agency has set a lifetime health advisory, or LHA, for PFOA and PFOS only, and has taken preliminary steps toward setting a legally enforceable maximum contaminant level, or MCL, for these two chemicals.

But the PFAS group contains hundreds of toxic chemicals. For many of these chemicals, little research has been done into the health effects they pose and their environmental pervasiveness.

IPEN's review goes so far as to say that PFHxS, a newer chemical found in PFAS-based firefighting foam, "is more bio-accumulative and hazardous in humans than PFOS.”

Researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health and Colorado School of Mines found last year that El Paso County residents who lived near Peterson Air Force Base for at least three years before 2015 (and were therefore exposed to contamination from firefighting foam discharges) had blood levels of PFHxS 10 times higher than the general U.S. population. They showed levels of PFOS that were twice as high as normal.

IPEN's report explains that when manufacturing company 3M phased out use of PFOS-based products, including firefighting foam and ScotchGard fabric and leather treatments, the PFAS chemicals perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS) and PFHxS replaced legacy PFOS in products such as stain repellents, surfactants and firefighting foams.

The “Firefighter Cancer Registry Act of 2018,” signed into law last year by President Donald Trump, "establishes and maintains a voluntary registry of firefighters to collect data on cancer incidence," the report notes. This registry could potentially aid research into the health effects of long-term PFAS exposure.

“Our firefighters and first responders are already asked to put themselves in harm’s way virtually every day,” Environmental Working Group Senior Scientist David Andrews said in response to the IPEN review. “Forcing them to use firefighting foams containing dangerous chemicals when there are alternatives that work puts their long-term health at unacceptable risk.”

Both the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act — a bill to fund the military through 2020 — end the use of PFAS-based foams by 2023, an EWG statement notes. Manufacturers have developed some types of foams that don't contain PFAS that would presumably replace these foams.

But the military has so far resisted to switching to such "non-fluorinated" foam formulas. While the Department of Defense has completely phased out its original foam formula and replaced it with a new, supposedly safer formula using different PFAS. The Air Force's website explains that, so far, no non-fluorinated foam formula meets "performance criteria necessary to safeguard our Airmen from real time fire emergency responses."

PFAS-containing foams "are the most effective foams currently available to fight flammable liquid fires in military, industrial, aviation and municipal arenas," it continues. Chemical manufacturers also argue that the newer versions shouldn't be banned outright.

While Colorado lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year banning all PFAS-based foams (as have lawmakers in a few other states), the state bans don't apply to the U.S. military or the Federal Aviation Administration, which requires the foam's use at airports.

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