By: Bob Deem
Summary. In 1967, 134 sailors were killed when a fire broke out aboard the USS Forestal aircraft carrier off the coast of North Vietnam. After that incident, the US Navy began requiring all of its vessels to carry a new firefighting agent called Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF, or "A Triple-F"). The revolutionary compound had been developed in conjunction with chemical company 3M and patented by the Navy in 1966. The use of AFFF was soon adopted as industry standard across the Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration, and fire departments around the world. AFFF contains a class of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which was poorly understood at the time of its development. These chemicals have since been linked to a host of health conditions like cancer, immune disorders, reproductive and hormonal dysfunction. Worse, they are incredibly persistent in the environment, as they are immune to almost any kind degradation. PFAS chemicals released during firefighting activities, both real-world and far more often in training, make their way into groundwater either through seepage, runoff, or direct release into oceans, lakes, and streams. Because they do not degrade over time, they quickly build up and become harmful to humans in concentrations as low as 70 parts per trillion (ppt). Not only do PFAS chemicals accumulate in the environment, they are equally persistent in the human body, making exposure to even tiny amounts dangerous over time. In 2000, 3M announced that it would no longer manufacture AFFF containing PFOS, a type of PFAS chemical, after research indicated that there was no level of exposure that could be considered “safe” for humans. By this time, however, many more chemical manufacturers were manufacturing PFAS-based firefighting agents with a new 6 carbon-chain formulation that they claimed was safer for the environment than the old 8 carbon-chain AFFF. However, in the twenty years since, the new formulation has proven to be every bit as dangerous to health, more difficult to clean up, and better able to slip through filtration systems.
Why should we care? PFAS-based firefighting agents are used across the US and around the world. Every year, thousands of gallons of these toxic chemicals are discharged and make their way into our drinking water.
The linked article discusses the release of PFOS and PFOA containing firefighting agents into Lake St. Clair from Selfridge Air National Guard Base, right here in our own back yard! Subsequent testing has revealed local drinking water contamination in excess of 4,000 parts per trillion, against a lifetime exposure limit of only 70 parts per trillion established by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Michigan Environmental Council sets the limit at 16 parts per trillion for PFOS and just 8 parts per trillion for PFOA. As a former military crash rescue firefighter, the issue of PFAS contamination from military firefighting operations is a subject that is important to me.
Science in Action.
Dr. Jennifer Field is a Professor, Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology at Oregon State University.
Professor Field's research focuses on the development and application of methods to measure and track micropollutants in natural and man-made water systems. Her current work includes developing the application of chromatography/mass spectrometry to measure illicit drugs in municipal waste water as an alternative indicator of community drug use. A great deal of her early work focused on contamination of groundwater by fluorinated surfactants (PFAS) in firefighting foam. Professor Fields has published or co-published dozens of peer-reviewed scientific articles on the subject of groundwater contamination by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, from all sources, including military use of aqueous film forming foams.