Firefighting foam pollutes water of 6 million in U.S.

Sailors on an aircraft carrier test the aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) system. (Credit: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Matthew Young/US Navy via Official USS Theodore Roosevelt/Flickr)

Firefighting foam containing highly fluorinated chemicals is contaminating drinking water supplies around many of the nation’s military bases, airports, and industrial sites, according to a new study.

In humans, these chemicals have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, high cholesterol, obesity, and endocrine disruption.

“Such persistent chemicals should only be used when essential, and never for training.”

The study authors estimate that 6 million or more people may be drinking water contaminated with these highly fluorinated chemicals—in this case, poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These chemicals are used widely to extinguish liquid fuel fires and during training exercises, and are referred to as aqueous film-forming foams (AFFFs) because they contain a fluorocarbon surfactant, such as perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), that reduces surface tension and increases spreading over the liquid.

“During firefighting practice drills, large volumes of these toxic chemicals wash into surface and ground waters and can end up in our drinking water,” says Arlene Blum, a coauthor of the study and visiting scholar in the chemistry department at UC Berkeley. “Such persistent chemicals should only be used when essential, and never for training.”

The study, which appears in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, is based on levels of contaminants in drinking water measured in EPA’s Third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule study. These measurements suggest that at least six million people have drinking water that exceeds the recent EPA health advisory levels for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS).

Child body fat linked to mom’s PFOA exposure

Using sophisticated mapping technology, the researchers traced possible sources of contamination to fire-fighting foam at military sites and airports, industrial sites, and wastewater treatment plants.

Blum, the founding director of the Green Science Policy Institute in Berkeley, says that a major conclusion from these studies is that the problem of fluorinated chemicals in our nation’s drinking water is enormous. The available water data only reveals the tip of an iceberg of contaminated drinking water.

“Our results point to the need for the EPA to enact enforceable regulations to protect the health of the millions of Americans being exposed to PFAS in their drinking water,” says coauthor Thomas Bruton, a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s department of civil and environmental engineering.

Does PFOA cut how long moms breastfeed?

Another study by Harvard researchers in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives connects early life exposure to the fluorinated chemicals to reduced immune responses that persist into adolescence.

A recent study in the same population found that mothers with higher exposures to these substances were capable of breastfeeding their children a shorter time span, perhaps due to adverse effects on hormonal functions.

Additional coauthors are from Harvard University and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. Bruton’s work was funded by the US National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences Superfund Research Program and UC Berkeley’s Superfund Research Center. The Smith Family Foundation and a private donor supported the Harvard research.

Source: UC Berkeley