A bill has been working its way through Congress that, if passed, would abolish the use of fluorinated chemicals used at airbases around the country. According to the new bill, entitled the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, per-fluorinated chemicals (or PFCs) would no longer be used in the manufacturing of firefighting foam. PFCs include thousands of different compounds, many of which have not been thoroughly studied. But a few fluorinated substances, including PFOA and PFOS, have been linked to reproductive issues, immune system suppression and multiple types of cancer. The bill passed in the House with a vote of 393 to 13 and now sits in committee at the Senate.
The Department of Defense, for its part, has acknowledged the risks associated with the chemicals, but rather than issue an all-out ban, the department has opted to use PFCs that are technically different but very similar to PFOA and PFOS. As it stands, the FAA requires all firefighting foam used at airbases to contain fluorinated chemicals. If the Reauthorization Act passes, 533 airports around the country “shall not require the use of fluorinated chemicals.” Further, the Act would require aircraft companies and airports to stop using PFC firefighting foam. The companies would need to comply within two years.
The foam was first used by the Navy in the 1960s to put out airbase fires and to help train firefighters. As it became more popular, private companies and international militaries began to use the substance. Now, decades later, the chemicals used in firefighting foam have contaminated at least 401 military installations in the US, according to a report circulating at the Department of Defense. It’s possible that more bases have experienced contaminations, as the Defense Department is still conducting studies. According to reporting by the Intercept, the Defense Department knows of 644 sites where the foam has been used.
This is worrisome, as PFOA and PFOS don’t break down once in the environment — meaning they can build up in water sources and in the blood stream over long periods of time. This, in turn, can lead to various health problems.
There have been a number of lawsuits in recent years pertaining to PFC contamination of local water sources. Residents of Warminster, PA, have suffered from a variety of health issues, including brain cancer, immune system suppression and melanoma, after the area surrounding the Naval Air Warfare Center was severely contaminated by PFCs. In Washington State, nearly 100 plaintiffs have joined in a class action suit against firefighting foam manufacturers, claiming that the PFC contamination led to decreased property values and severe health issues.
Communities have suffered immensely due to the negligence of the Defense Department and other associated parties. Despite this fact, the National Leadership Summit on PFCs – which was organized by the EPA – refused to allow community representatives to attend the meeting. By contrast, the summit welcomed a number of industry representatives working for companies responsible for PFC manufacturing. As noted by the Intercept, Jessica Bowman, an attorney with the American Chemistry Council and the Fluorocouncil, gave a speech on the first day of the summit.
Just days before the national meeting, Politico revealed that the White House, in tandem with the EPA, gave the order to suppress an Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry report because it would be a “public relations nightmare.” According to Politico, the report concludes that PFAS chemicals are unsafe at much lower levels than previously thought. Certain PFAS substances have a toxicity threshold that is 10 times lower than the one published by the EPA in 2016.
Looking ahead, public health advocates may want to rally behind the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018. That bill will now go to the Senate where the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee “is seeking an opportunity for floor consideration for the bill,” according to a statement given to the Intercept.