Federal Mandates to Swap Out Cancer-Causing PFAS Foam Will Generate Massive Waste and Steep Costs

A firefighter spraying a hose

A federal mandate for firefighting foams to be made without per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) has The Department of Defense, municipal fire departments, airports, oil refineries, and others reliant on the product to fight fires scrambling to manage disposal costs as the deadline nears.

The Pentagon, ordered by Congress, will release federal requirements for the foam switch by January 31, 2023. The National Defense Authorization Act mandates the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to update guidance for PFAS-waste disposal and destruction by December 2023. PFAS is a known carcinogen and the technology currently available to destroy it is limited.

However, consultants and attorneys have warned those who are reliant on PFAS-enabled foams to begin preparing for managing the wastes generated by switching foams. The new foams must meet military standards; and once they have, other users are expected to replace PFAS stock (also known as aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF).

Waste Generated is a Huge Problem

EPA chemist Matthew Magnuson said that one facility replacing PFAS-based foams could be dealing with tens of thousands of gallons of waste. Certain equipment, such as fire trucks that are too contaminated to clean, will have to be replaced, along with contaminated plumbing and valves. Disposing of old AFFF stock is also problematic because manmade PFAS chemicals are called “toxic forever” since they do not break down.

Arcadis Chief Water Engineer Corey Theriault suggested larger organizations may not realize how imposing the task ridding themselves of the carcinogenic foams is going to be. “The disposal cost is huge,” he said. Arcadis has been switching foams in Australia since 2017.

Mr. Theriault said organizations should begin by figuring out how many gallons of AFFF they have on-premises and where it is stored, what equipment contains PFAS foam, and the number of buildings the foam is piped into to fight fires. They should also determine how much liability they would be willing to incur.

One Fire Department’s Story

Waxhaw, NC Fire Chief Gregory R. Sharpe paid about $14,000 to remove 200 gallons of AFFF and replace it with a PFAS-free foam manufactured by GreenFire, which also partnered with the Battelle Memorial Institute to destroy the replaced AFFF products. Chief Sharpe said the department did not incur equipment-cleaning costs because the equipment had been replaced.

He also said the new foams that his department is using work for railroad accidents, gas station fires, and other fires. Knowing that these products cause cancer and other health problems, he said his crew is “happy the AFFF is gone. We didn’t want it hanging around the fire station.”

Disposing of PFAS Foam Products

The EPA in 2020 regarded landfills, waste incineration, and deep well injection as possible solutions to disposing of PFAS products. The guidance cautioned that there were unknowns to how successful these disposal solutions would be. For instance, many local and state laws may restrict disposal in landfills or incinerators.

Progress Destroying PFAS in Liquids

Water departments have had success using granular activated carbon (GAC), reverse osmosis, and ion exchange resin to extract PFAS from drinking water, although it must still be disposed of and destroyed.

However, progress has been made in Duke University’s research testing supercritical water oxidation technology (SCWO) since 2013. SCWO can destroy more than 99 percent of PFAS found in liquids, according to Marc Deshusses, a Duke professor of civil and environmental engineering, who cofounded 374Water, which has commercialized a version of the technology initially designed to help developing countries extract fecal matter from water supplies.

Mr. Deshusses said water at 705.2 degrees Fahrenheit and pressure destroys PFAS. Firefighting foam, contaminated water used to clean equipment, and tanks storing runoff from fires where the foam was used could respond to 374Water’s technology, AirSCWO.

More Research

Mr. Magnuson Max Krause, another engineer, said the EPA is currently analyzing various technologies that could facilitate AFFF replacement. The Department of Defense, a proponent of AFFF products for decades, and the Water Research Foundation continue to back extensive research on PFAS technologies.

Companies have yet to ramp up production on any PFAS-technology products because markets beginning to think about switching foams are a little leery of being the first to try a product without a track record.

PFAS Effects on the Human Body

The American Cancer Society has reported that exposure to high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances increases the risk of health problems, including certain cancers, such as liver, breast, kidney, thyroid, bladder, ovarian, prostate, and testicular. Humans have also been known to suffer from immune system complications, low infant birth rates, high cholesterol, and thyroid disruption.

PFAS chemicals are manmade and do not break down. They can slowly accumulate in the human body and have very long half-lives.

PFAS chemicals called toxic “forever” chemicals because they do not break down, also have extremely long half-lives, making them very dangerous to humans exposed to them, as they can accumulate inside your body at slow rates. The chemicals have been used in manufacturing commercial products such as firefighting foam and non-stick cookware.

If you have a personal injury case involving a client’s exposure to PFAS, you might potentially require many years of medical records. To get a quicker and more effective medical record request, contact our team for more information.