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Issues Of The Environment: Firefighting Under New Michigan Regulations On PFAS

Jul 29, 2020

Wixom Fire Chief Jeff Roberts
Credit Linkedin / linkedin.com

New state regulations will change the way some firefighting operations are conducted in Michigan.  Firefighting foams can contain high levels of PFAS.  Those forever chemicals are not only detrimental to the environment but also to human health.  Jeff Roberts is chief of the Wixom Fire Department and president of the Michigan Fire Chiefs Association.  He joined 89.1 WEMU’s David Fair to discuss the new regulations and their impacts on training, operations, and safety.


Overview

  • From the 1970s through the 1990s, 3M’s Light Water fire suppressant—and other fluorosurfactant-based firefighting foams like it—were the “highest performing” [firefighting] foams available.  At the time, the foams seemed to have few, if any, drawbacks.  They smother fires more quickly than water alone, saving lives and property.
  • Until recently nearly all fire-suppression foams contained high concentrations of PFAS.  According to the Environmental Working Group, “PFAS are known as “forever chemicals,” because once released into the environment, they never break down.  They also build up in our bodies, where they can stay for decades.  PFAS chemicals are associated with cancer, reproductive and developmental harms, and harm to the immune system.”  They persist in the environment, water, and are a health hazard for those exposed while working.
  • On July 8th, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed bills into law requiring fire departments tell state regulators about the use of chemical-based firefighting foam within 48 hours.  
  • Many Michigan fire departments are transitioning to "fluorine-free foams."  The Ann Arbor Fire Department reports the new foams are effective, but more must be used.  There are also newer PFAS-containing foams known as “C6 foams” available, and although they are thought to contain less PFAS than older fluorine-based foams, they are likely to be a health and environmental hazard.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu