WASHINGTON — Battered by years of criticism from U.S. lawmakers and environmental advocates, the Department of Defense will stop purchasing PFAS-containing firefighting foam later this year and phase it out entirely in 2024.
The replacement for Aqueous Film Forming Foam has yet to be determined, and advocates are frustrated it’s taken so long to halt the use of a product containing a “forever chemical” that at high levels of exposure may lead to increased risks for cancer, among other effects. The pace of cleanup at potentially contaminated military installations and nearby communities also has come under scrutiny by Congress.
The Defense Department began searching for a fire suppressant that was more effective than water after a horrific fire aboard the USS Forrestal in 1967 killed 134 sailors and injured 161.
The answer turned out to be a highly effective firefighting foam containing PFAS — that the Pentagon and other federal agencies like the Forest Service now are struggling to find a substitute for, given the foam’s host of potential health and environmental problems.
The federal government’s widespread use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, which are especially strong and don’t break down naturally, has spurred concerns for decades. PFAS are used in hundreds of products where resisting heat or repelling water is especially important. That has made them ubiquitous in household items like nonstick pans as well as larger, more industrial applications like firefighting foam.
“The problem with PFAS is it’s a highly effective fire remedy. The other problem, of course, is it’s indestructible,” House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Ken Calvert, R-Calif., told States Newsroom. “So we need to find a solution. We need to find a replacement. It’s been a lot harder than expected, but they’re working on it.”
Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, a former U.S. Army officer and a member of the Armed Services Committee, said there are concerns about how exactly the Defense Department is phasing out PFAS and if the replacements will be as good as the firefighting foam it uses now.
But, she said, the Pentagon needs to ensure its use of PFAS isn’t causing health impacts for people on or near military installations. The Pentagon has identified more than 700 installations where PFAS could have leached into the soil or groundwater, and begun testing to determine how extensive any contamination may be. Testing and cleanup costs are expected to mount into the billions.
“It’s still used broadly by a lot of the firefighting units that exist across the DOD. And we don’t have a replacement, so that is a huge concern,” Ernst said. “We need to have the capability of suppressing fires, fighting fires, and until we have a replacement, we’ll have to make do.”
While the Forest Service, commercial airports and fire departments also use the fire-suppressing foam that contains PFAS, the U.S. military’s choice of a replacement in the coming months will likely have tremendous influence on what other agencies do.
Decades of warnings
The Pentagon had plenty of notice there was a problem with its firefighting foam.