A senior airman blows a small sea of fire-retardant foam that was unintentionally released in an aircraft hangar in this provided photo from the Air Force by Ken Wright.
A senior airman blows a small sea of fire-retardant foam that was unintentionally released in an aircraft hangar in this provided photo from the Air Force by Ken Wright.
In the early 1980s, Indianapolis firefighter Tom Hanify was part of a training exercise using foam spray to put out a controlled house fire. After Hanify and the crew contained the blaze, they stuck around just to play in the foam.

He said that at the time, the firefighters were just having fun. Now, looking back, there was nothing funny about it.

That’s because Hanify now realizes that foam contained per-and-polyf luoroalkyl, “forever” chemicals that don’t break down and build up in the human body. Recent research has linked it to at least eight different kinds of cancer.

“We were literally playing with this stuff and had no clue what we were doing,” said Hanify, who today serves as president of the Professional Fire Fighters Union of Indiana.

A HIDDEN RISK

It was the same story for nearly every Indiana fire department that used what is known as aqueous film-forming foam over the next four decades. All of it contained per-and-polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), exposing countless firefighters to the manmade forever chemicals.

Today, those firefighters are paying the price.

According to data from the International Association of Fire Fighters, cancer caused 66% of the career firefighter line-of-duty deaths from 2002 to 2019. PFAS have been linked to four of the most common cancers in firefighters, including testicular, mesothelioma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and prostate cancers.

Indiana State Fire Marshall Joel Thacker said eight firefighters who died in the line of duty were added last year to the Indiana Law Enforcement and Firefighters Memorial located on the west side of the Capitol Building. Six of them died from cancer.

“We know it’s a big health problem, so anything I can do as the state fire marshal to educate and eradicate the ways we may be getting sick through this profession, I want to try and do that,” Thacker said.

And that’s just what the state will start doing next month when it begins picking up foam containing PFAS from fire departments at no cost.

Gov. Eric Holcomb announced the program last month, saying over 200 departments had already signed up to have in total 50,000 gallons of the foam removed and destroyed.

CLEANING UP THE MESS


The state’s program to remove PFAS foam comes after state legislators in 2020 passed a new law prohibiting its use for any training purposes. That forced departments to begin using alternative foams that don’t contain PFAS.

But that law created its own problem, Hanify said.

“Where do you put this stuff? Where do you store it when you do have it?” he said. “Most departments stored it right there in the fire house where people are living or working.”

Hanify said the new program solves that problem.

“I am thrilled that the state has taken this initiative, because a lot of these fire departments don’t have money to get rid of this stuff, or the expertise,” he said. “So this is a reason to celebrate. It’s a big deal.”

Thacker said that’s especial ly true, considering Indiana is only the third state in the nation to offer this kind of service. He said that over 30 other states are looking into PFAS, and nine of those are considering implementing a similar disposal program.

Free pickup and disposal of the foam is more critical now than ever, Thacker said, as fewer companies will provide the service. That’s because as PFAS get more scrutiny from state and federal regulators, fewer companies will be approved to remove it, driving up the costs.

“If it’s considered a hazardous material, only certain companies are going to be approved to pick it up,” he said. “I think it’s only going to get more expensive as we learn more about it.”

Thacker said that price increase has already started to happen. He said he knows of one fire department that paid $3,000 to dispose of 50 gallons of foam.

Now, the new state program aims to remove that financial barrier and the burden of finding a private company by doing it free.

But although over 200 departments have signed up, there are many more that haven’t. Thacker said there are 841 fire departments in the state, and the large majority of those likely have some PFAS foam stored.

He said the key will be to educate departments about the program, and encourage them to take advantage of a free service that could have a direct impact on firefighters’ health.

Holcomb said in March, when he announced the program, that he hopes more departments will sign up so the state can do all it can to protect Hoosier firefighters.

“Indiana has chosen to be a leader in this PFAS foam program, because, frankly, firefighting is hard enough without having to worry about these hazardous chemicals,” he said.

But even as the program begins, PFAS in foam and dozens of other consumer products have been leeching into groundwater across Indiana for decades, exposing not just firefighters to the substances’ harmful health effects.

Now, as the state takes action to help firefighters, is it already too late to clean up groundwater tainted with the “forever” chemical?”

A LOOMING CRISIS?


The National Defense Authorization Act approved last year by Congress set a new requirement for the U.S. Department of Defense. Military bases where PFAS had been detected in groundwater had to provide notification to farmers and agricultural operators located within one-mile down gradient about the threat of contamination to their property.

Grissom Air Reserve Base north of Kokomo was required to send out notifications to two farmers. Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center in southwest Indiana sent out 43 letters, according to a DOD report released in June.

Both military installations have active fire departments that have trained and used PFAS foams for years.

At Grissom, a DOD survey in 2018 found the base had PFAS levels in groundwater that exceeded the EPA lifetime health advisory levels. However, the wells used for drinking water were well below the advisory levels.

No results were reported at Crane in 2018, but a survey last year found PFAS in the groundwater at the base, according to the DOD.

Although f iref ighting foam is a large contributor to PFAS in groundwater and the environment, it’s just one of many, said Indra Frank, environmental health director of the Hoosier Environmental Council.

PFAS are in food packaging, carpeting, nonstick pans, fabrics and electronics. Lots of those products end up in landfills, where PFAS slowly leech into the soil before making their way into groundwater.

“I’m afraid there are many contributors,” Frank said. “Foam is one of them, and I’m glad it’s being addressed, but these compounds have been used in many, many ways.”

Because of their widespread use and thei r persistence in the environment, many PFAS are found in the blood of people and animals all over the world. It’s those who have extended exposure to the chemicals, such as firefighters, who face the highest risk of developing cancer.

But as more PFAS end up in environment, the higher the chance everyday residents could face extended exposure to the chemicals.

The rise in PFAS comes as federal regulators have yet to set a threshold on how much of the chemical can safely be found in water or soil before it’s required to be cleaned.

The Environmental Protection Agency currently has a health advisory limit in place, but those advisories are non-enforceable and non-regulatory and only provide technical information on health effects.

However, the EPA is taking action right now to set enforceable PFAS limits. The agency last year released a four-year roadmap on how it will research, restrict and cleanup the chemicals across the nation.

“The risks posed by PFAS demand that the Agency attack the problem on multiple fronts at the same time,” the EPA said in its planning document. “EPA must leverage the full range of statutory authorities to confront the human health and ecological risks of PFAS.”

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management has also launched its own program to test for PFAS in drinking water. The agency is requiring water treatment facilities to test for the chemicals in both raw and treated water. The results are being collected now through May 2023.

Hanify said that although his main concern is protecting firefighters’ health by eliminating exposure to PFAS in foam, it’s also important that state and federal agencies take action to protect the public.

“It’s not just with firefighters,” he said. “More and more of this stuff is in the environment, and we need to know more about it and how to counteract these chemicals in our bodies.”

Frank said that any effort to research and clean PFAS from the environment should be applauded, like the state’s PFAS foam removal program. But with the chemicals used in so many products for so many years, how communities address the contaminates will likely be tricky.

“It’s a complicated issue, and it’s going to take a while for society to unwind our relationship with these compounds,” she said.
© 2022 Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.