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State bill would ban toxic chemicals in firefighting foam

The fight over PFAS

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State bill would ban firefighting foam with PFAS. - U.S. AIR FORCE/EDDIE GREEN
  • U.S. Air Force/Eddie Green
  • State bill would ban firefighting foam with PFAS.

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers has introduced a bill to ban firefighting foam that contains certain toxic, man-made chemicals: those classified as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS.

El Paso County Democrats Rep. Tony Exum and Sen. Pete Lee joined forces with their Republican counterparts, Rep. Lois Landgraf and Sen. Dennis Hisey, on House Bill 1279, which was introduced March 27. It would prohibit the sale of firefighting foam that contains PFAS for use in Colorado.

The U.S. military used firefighting foam containing long-chain PFAS for decades, and contaminated the drinking water supplies of communities near military installations around the world — including Fountain, Security-Widefield and Stratmoor, outside Peterson Air Force Base. (Those water districts have changed sources or added filtration systems since 2015, when evidence of the contamination began to emerge.)

Studies have linked two types of long-chain PFAS — PFOA and PFOS — to low infant birth weights, immune system disorders, cancer and thyroid problems.

The Department of Defense has completely phased out its original foam formula and replaced it with a new, supposedly safer formula that contains shorter-chain PFAS. Peterson's emergency response vehicles were outfitted with the new formula in 2016, and the base no longer uses the foam for training exercises.

But while the Department of Defense has said that the new formula's shorter-chain chemicals don't accumulate in the body and are more environmentally friendly, some clean-water advocates beg to differ.

"In some cases, the [shorter-chain chemicals] may migrate farther ... so you may have a bigger contamination area," says Melanie Benesh, a legislative attorney for Environmental Working Group. "We don't have strong evidence that these newer substitutes are much safer and much better for the environment."

But could a state ban on all PFAS-containing foam change the federal government's policy?

"The Air Force isn't going to speculate on proposed legislation," wrote Stephen Brady, a spokesperson for Peterson Air Force Base, when asked how the bill could affect Peterson's operations.

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.

Fire departments and airports separate from the military have said they could replace PFAS foam with other products, and don't oppose the bill, Landgraf says. She believes that the ban wouldn't affect the Air Force.

But the Sierra Club — an environmental nonprofit that backed the bill — expects opposition from the chemical industry.

Modern PFAS foams should "not be banned outright," the American Chemistry Council, a group representing chemical manufacturers, said in a statement. "We look forward to working with the bill sponsors to ensure that these products are available for use where needed, while also reducing unnecessary release into the environment."

Advocates say the bill — which would also require manufacturers to disclose when personal protective equipment contains PFAS — is a decisive step in the ongoing fight against PFAS, which have been used in everything from Teflon pans to food packaging. While the Environmental Protection Agency announced in February that it would begin the process of setting a maximum contaminant level for PFOA and PFOS, that process could take years.

In February, El Paso County was announced as one of eight new locations for a federal assessment of human exposure to PFAS near military installations. A future study will examine the health effects of elevated PFAS levels.

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