New Rules Restrict Use of Carcinogenic Firefighting Foam
by Moises A. Hernandez, age 15
On August 31, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) finalized new rules that restrict the use of firefighting foam containing substances known to cause cancer. Under these rules, such firefighting foam may only be used in an emergency. Notably, the new rules prohibit use for training, which has been a significant source of environmental contamination at sites like the Dane County Airport.
The chemicals in question, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are sometimes referred to as “forever chemicals.” This is due to the fact that these substances hardly break down in the environment. Beyond their longevity, PFAS exposure can increase the risk of bodily disorders and chronic diseases like cancer. PFAS are found in firefighting foam and tools we use every day, including food packaging and non-stick cookware. Due to their danger, Wisconsin has now started to limit the effect of these chemicals in our environment by restricting their use, and monitoring their spread.
"What the rulemaking is intended to do is clarify record-keeping requirements if a facility does possess that foam," said Kate Strom Hiorns, the DNR’s solid waste sections chief. "It will include requirements to notify DNR when PFAS-containing foam is discharged to the environment so proper cleanup measures can be implemented, and it will include appropriate containment treatment and disposal guidelines intended to keep PFAS compounds out of the environment." This means that the fire departments will have to work with the government to monitor any release of PFAS in the future.
The Wisconsin DNR is monitoring approximately 30 sites contaminated with PFAS around the state and says most can be traced to firefighting foam. Multiple contaminated sites at the Dane County Regional Airport, for example, have been associated with training areas used for decades by the Wisconsin Air National Guard and local fire departments.
The Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs Association supports the new rules but also said they are concerned about the cost of disposal and replacement--which is said to average about $50 and $35 per gallon respectively. In 2019, the Madison Fire Department (MFD) became the first in Wisconsin to end its use of fluorinated foam. Given the amount of fluorinated foam the fire department contained, fire department officials estimated it would cost about $15,000 to collect and dispose of 610 gallons of concentrated foam. The DNR estimates that compliance with the new rule will cost up to $5 million annually. With fire departments anticipating to abandon the use of fluorinated foams, there must be a designated place of disposal.
The MFD has selected a contractor to manage the disposal of their fluorinated foam. According to documents from MFD, the contractor, North Shore Environmental Construction, planned to dispose of the material at a Waste Management landfill in Arlington, Oregon.
While Wisconsin has its own troubles with fluorinated foam, other states have even greater difficulties to overcome. A survey from 2018 estimated fire departments in Michigan to have more than 36,000 gallons of fluorinated foam. The Wisconsin DNR is still surveying fire departments to determine the amount of fluorinated foam they have on hand, but DNR representatives said Wisconsin likely has less foam than Michigan.
[Sources: Wisconsin State Journal; Wisconsin Public Radio; Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources]