A bill approved by both houses of the Indiana legislature seeks to limit the use of firefighting foam that contains a potentially toxic chemical.
House Bill 1189 would prohibit the use of firefighting foams containing PFAS chemicals during training, unless the training facility can prevent the release of the chemical into the environment.
The foams, known as aqueous film-forming foams, are used to put out fires caused by flammable liquids like gasoline, oils and solvents.
Many AFFF foams contain PFAS, a group of manmade chemicals linked to a series of adverse health conditions like liver damage, pregnancy-induced hypertension, lowered birth weight and an increased risk of developing certain types of cancer.
The bill, introduced by Republican Rep. Peggy Mayfield, has bipartisan support in both the Indiana House and Senate, and also has the support of several firefighting organizations.
“Firefighting is an inherently dangerous job, and if we can do anything to minimize some of the health risks for not only firefighters, but the public, we support that,” said Mike Whited, vice president of the Professional Firefighters Union of Indiana, during the bill’s introduction. “AFFF foam, PFAS, we do need that to suppress some of these fires, but technology’s coming forward. Some of the things that it does, we’re learning more about. We do support only using it for the intended purposes and getting the information out not to train with it.”
The bill is also supported by the Indiana Fire Chiefs Association and the Indiana Volunteer Firefighters Association.
“This is a common sense approach to minimizing the dangers, while still providing fire protection,” said Mayfield.
Not only would the bill protect the health of firefighters, it would also eliminate one source of the PFAS contamination.
“When PFAS foam is used outdoors for firefighting, it can get into soil, contaminate soil or can get into the ground and contaminate ground water,” said Dr. Indra Frank, director of environmental health and water policy for the Hoosier Environmental Council. “It’s a good thing to get rid of one use of PFAS foams.”
PFAS chemicals have been used since the 1940s as coatings on consumer products to make them grease-, water- and fire-proof.
The U.S. military began using PFAS-based AFFF to fight petroleum-based fires in the 1970s. The foam eventually made its way to civilian firefighters.
Part of the problem with PFAS chemicals is that they are persistent, meaning they endure in the environment for a long time after they are used.
“They don’t break down in soil, or due to sunlight or weather,” Frank said. “They don’t break down when they get into water, and it turns out our bodies and the bodies of animals also have trouble breaking down these compounds. What that means is they can wind up getting in food chains and accumulating in the body.”
In 2016 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set a drinking water health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFOA, two of the more than 5,000 known PFAS chemicals.
The health advisory is meant to be informational but non-enforceable, meaning the federal government says levels for PFOS and PFOA beyond 70ppt could be unsafe but the federal government will not force water providers to adhere to that level.
It's unclear how much PFAS is contamination is present in Indiana.
Federal testing found that PFAS firefighting foam was used in several current and former military facilities in the state, including Naval Support Activity Crane and the former Grissom Air Force Base. Testing determined that traces of the chemicals were still found on those sites years after they were last used.
But, it’s unclear whether any areas under state control are contaminated with PFAS chemicals. The state has not tested for PFAS in any major capacity.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management has said it would enforce maximum contaminant levels for PFAS chemicals as soon as they are set by the federal government.
The EPA is taking steps to regulate PFOA and PFOS and is seeking input on monitoring requirements and “regulatory approaches,” including setting a federal, enforceable maximum contaminant level for the chemicals.
Frank said HB1189 is a good first step for Indiana’s lawmakers to protect the health of Hoosiers. She said the bill has had a positive side effect.
“It has started conversations about these chemicals at the State House, and a number of legislators have expressed interest in studying the issue further, looking at where PFAS is in Indiana, what hazards it might pose and whether there are good substitutes,” said Frank. “Several of our legislators have committed to asking for an interim study committee this summer.”
The bill passed the House unanimously, 98 to 0. It was referred to the Senate, where it passed, 98 to 0. The bill now needs a signature from Gov. Eric Holcomb to be made law.
Several other PFAS-related bills are up for consideration during the 2020 legislative session.
House Bill 1357 calls for the testing of Lake Michigan for a series of pollutants, including PFAS.
Only HB1189 gained any traction among lawmakers.