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Climate

The Big, Flaming Problem With the EPA’s New PFAS Rules

Forever chemicals are very good at fighting fires.

Firefighters.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Hindsight is 20-20, but boy have we had a lot of bad ideas.

We laid lead pipes to transport our drinking water. We let our kids play in clouds of DDT. We textured our ceilings with asbestos fibers. And until this week, nothing prevented municipalities across the country from allowing cancer-causing chemicals into the water that flows from the kitchen sinks of nearly half of Americans.

On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would tolerate only exceptionally low levels of six perfluoroalkyls and polyfluoroalkyls — a group collectively known as PFAS, or “forever chemicals” — in U.S. drinking water. The chemicals, which are used for everything from waterproofing raincoats to making stain-resistant rugs, have been linked to severe health problems such as kidney, testicular, prostate, and colorectal cancers, of which diagnoses have been on the rise. An estimated 98% of us have traces of PFAS in our bodies, which often got there in the first place because of something we drank.

Environmental groups were quick to applaud the decision, calling it “overdue” and a “huge victory.” But despite being a huge step toward improving public health, the EPA’s action does not stop PFAS from entering America’s groundwater in the first place. One of the most pernicious sources is also one of the most useful: firefighting foam.

“Aqueous film forming foam,” or AFFF (“A-triple-F”), is highly effective at putting out oil and gasoline fires, which is why commercial airports, refineries, the military, and large ships keep it ready to hand. “When you take a shower, the soap and the shampoo you use spreads out the water into a foam — it suds,” David Trueba, the CEO of Revive Environmental, a company that has developed a method of breaking down PFAS that meets the EPA’s standards, told me. “AFFF does the same thing, but it prevents oxygen from getting to a grease or an oil fire. The PFAS molecules do an excellent job of creating bubbles and foam.”

The specific PFAS chemicals used in the foam are perfluorooctanesulfonic acid or perluorooctanoic acid, both newly restricted under the EPA’s drinking water guidance — but again, nothing prevents companies from continuing to manufacture them. The somewhat limited and specific uses of AFFF might make it seem like a threat mainly to firefighters and aviation professionals, rather than the general public. But in fact, the foam is one of the primary ways PFAS gets into drinking water because it is “directly applied to the environment when conducting training and responding to fires,” Shalene Thomas, the senior emerging contaminants program manager at Battelle, Revive Environmental’s parent company, told me. To add insult to injury, airports are required to test their foam annually, for safety reasons.

Even with the EPA’s new regulations, Thomas said, “until these releases are fully delineated, sources removed, and treatment installed, the risk of exposure from drinking water remains.”

Airports, municipal fire departments, and the military are all moving away from using AFFF to fight liquid fires, but that leaves an estimated 10 to 15 million gallons of the foam in the United States alone, which will have to be carefully processed to neutralize their danger, lest they end up in landfills where they might, of course, leech into the groundwater. Their persistence in the environment is a side effect of the strong bonds that make PFAS so effective — and what makes industry so reluctant to give them up — but it’s also what makes them incredibly difficult to abate. “If you’re playing Red Rover, normal molecules look like you and I — we can lock arms, and they can break through,” Trueba explained. But with PFAS, “We’re playing against The Rock and John Cena. That’s how strong the bond is.”

This conundrum has led some water utilities to complain about costs from a problem they say is not of their own making and is often prohibitively expensive to address. Large water utilities that serve populations of more than 10,000 people may only have a budget of $10 million for everything they do. “Having a $3 to $5 million bogey put on top of that” to treat water for PFAS, as directed by the EPA — “that’s where the comments usually come from,” Trueba said. While the Biden administration allotted an additional $1 billion in its drinking water plan on top of the nearly $4 billion set aside to address PFAS and other contaminants in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, $5 billion is still “going to go not very far,” Trueba said. For example, Washington state’s public water utilities alone have said they’d need $1.6 billion for their initial PFAS cleanup.

John Rumpler, the clean water director at Environment America, is less tolerant of complaints from utilities. “For the public water utilities to be sitting there playing the victim and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, the EPA is imposing all these terrible costs on us’ — what do we tell our kids? Do something to help yourself,” he told me. “The part of the problem that utilities can clearly control is to shut off the tap on those industrial wastewater sources that are sending their PFAS to you.” State officials can also set pretreatment standards for industrial dischargers so PFAS are removed before they ever end up in waste sewage plants.

So far, this is how action against AFFF has come about — from individual state lawsuits and takeback programs. Back in 2018, the city of Stewart, Florida, sued chemical manufacturer 3M over the firefighting foam that had contaminated its water table, a suit that was eventually joined by 4,000 cities around the country. The eventual settlement totaled more than $10 billion and sparked the race to create technologies like Revive’s PFAS Annihilator, which uses intense heat and pressure to break the molecule’s stubborn chemical bonds. Other users of AFFF started to look closer at the foam, too; the Pentagon plans to phase out its use this year after an investigation by the Defense Department, and a spokeswoman for the National Fire Protection Association pointed me toward the organization’s ongoing workshops aimed at mitigating health risks to its members from fire-suppressing foams.

If these efforts keep up, it’s possible that in the future PFAS will become another bad idea we disbelievingly shake our heads at when we remember how things used to be. “Our parents and our grandparents seem to have pans and rugs from before these chemicals, so I’m pretty sure that we can do without them,” Rumpler pointed out.

But until chemical manufacturers stop making substances like AFFF, the EPA has only really given the faucet one good turn toward the off position. It still continues to drip.

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Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.

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