Expert panel: Firefighters have “unacceptably high levels” of PFAS in their blood

(Source: Adobe stock)

Firefighters who use foams made with toxic perfluorinated chemicals — PFAS — have “unacceptably” high levels in their blood, according to an international scientific review released yesterday.

The Environmental Working Group announced the results, which were published by a panel scientists and engineers hired by IPEN, a global network of public interest groups, to study the issue.

Perfluorinated compounds, of which there are thousands of types, have been linked to some cancers, thyroid disorders, high cholesterol, high blood pressure during pregnancy and other health problems.

The panel reviewed the scientific literature and determined that two types of PFAS — PFOS and PFHxS —were detected in the blood of the firefighters. Both are toxic, but PFHxS is lesser known than PFOS. 

Yet PFHxS is “extremely persistent, exhibits long-range transport, it is more bio-accumulative and hazardous in humans than PFOS,” the study said.

Firefighters can be exposed to these compounds not only from the foams, but from their personal protective equipment.

The National Defense Authorization Act would ban the use of the foams by 2023. President Trump has threatened to veto any bills that contain the prohibition.

The EPA has yet to regulate PFAS, but recently announced it is considering adding it to the list of contaminants that are reportable under the Toxics Release Inventory. The TRI tracks the discharge and emissions of hundreds of chemicals and compounds at thousands of facilities nationwide. However, the data is self-reported by industry. and the reporting itself is voluntary.

Workers in other industries can also be exposed to high levels of PFAS. In 2002, DuPont, now Chemours, tested the blood of 33 of its employees and found several had higher than normal levels of PFOA.

PFAS have also been widely found in drinking water, both in North Carolina and globally.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, Senate Bill 433, a mish-mash of various items, has new language directing the NC Policy Collaboratory to compile a statewide inventory of governments and airports that use firefighting foam containing PFAS.

It is scheduled to be heard by the full House today at 1:30.

The bill also tasks the Collaboratory to assess the cost and volume of the firefighting foams, as well as how much of it is unused and could be disposed of. Since PFAS are unregulated by the EPA, it’s unclear how they would be disposed of. Chemours has shipped its GenX, a type of PFAS, to Texas and Arkansas for either deep-well injection or incineration.

Earlier this session two bipartisan bills, SB 655 and HB 560, would have banned the use, sale, manufacture and discharge of firefighting foams that contained PFAS. Those measures stalled in committee and never received a hearing.

This story has been corrected to reflect that facilities self-report their emissions to the Toxics Release Inventory, but it is required, not voluntary.

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