Firefighting foams containing PFAS chemicals are a major source of water contamination. But fire departments around Michigan are still using them. Kevin Sehlmeyer is the State Fire Marshal.
He's surveying all of Michigan's fire departments on their use of PFAS-containing foams. He says that's a first step toward eliminating them and switching to safer alternatives. According to Sehlmeyer, PFAS firefighting foams are being used only in narrowly limited circumstances.
“It is still the best product to knock the fire down as quickly as possible to protect life and property,” says Sehlmeyer. “We've asked fire departments not to train with it. We've asked fire departments not to use it on anything other than a hydrocarbon fire, which would be like gasoline tankers those type of things. And then aviation, airplane crashes."
According to Sehlmeyer, when the foam is used to put out a fire, steps are taken to minimize contamination. And it's reported to the Department of Environmental Quality as a hazardous material spill to be cleaned up. That is done by dialing the MDEQ’s Pollution Emergency Alerting System number. The person taking the call then asks if the PFAS-containing foam was used, and, if so, the remediation company contracted to clean up the hydrocarbon spill will also clean up the foam.
Additionally, fire departments have begun taking extra measures on the scene when PFAS fire fighting foams are used. Those include using sand to attempt to contain the material and sandbagging storm drains to prevent runoff from entering storm drains.
“In the past we didn’t realize what the impacts were to the environment,” Sehlmeyer says. “We have a more conscious effort today.”
Alternative products that don’t contain the dangerous PFAS chemicals are available. However, there are some obstacles remaining to replacing them. One is that the Federal Aviation Administration requires airports to have PFAS foam on hand in order to remain open. The Air Force, on the other hand, has converted all of their air bases to a safer alternative foam.
Out of more than a thousand departments that have responded so far, Sehlmeyer says 585 have responded, and 263 of those have PFAS foam, totalling 29,718 gallons together.
Sehlmeyer says, “So one of the things we're working on a plan is how do we get that A triple F class B 8 chain foam out of the inventories of the fire departments, and what is the environmentally friendly replacement for that that still has the capabilities to put these fires out.”
Fluorine-free firefighting foams are available as a safer alternative to PFAS foams. They’re currently used at a number of major airports including London Heathrow, Copenhagen, and Dubai.
Sehlmeyer says the state’s goal to get the other 45 percent of fire departments to respond to the survey.