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California bills would ban PFAS in firefighting foam, expand testing of water for all PFAS

  • California bills would ban PFAS in firefighting foam, expand testing of water for all PFAS
    Firefighters sprayed foam on structures in the Mammoth Hot Springs complex on 10 September 1988 during the Yellowstone Fires. Credit: Wikipedia

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On Tuesday the California Senate introduced two bills to address the growing contamination crisis of toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS. One bill would ban the chemicals in firefighting foam – one of the largest sources of PFAS contamination – and the other would expand the state’s program to test water for many more formulations of the chemicals.

  • S.B. 1044, by State Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), would ban the manufacture, sale and use of firefighting foam containing PFAS. It also would mandate that manufacturers of firefighting gear include a written notice if the equipment contains PFAS chemicals.
  • S.B. ­­­1056, by State Sen. Anthony J. Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge), would direct the State Water Resources Control Board to develop methods to measure all PFAS chemicals found in drinking water, groundwater, surface water and wastewater. There are an estimated 4,700 PFAS chemicals, with more than 600 in active use. California currently tests for only 30.

These “forever chemicals” do not break down in the environment, and they build up in our blood and organs. Very low doses of PFAS chemicals in drinking water have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, liver or thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol and other health problems. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, virtually all Americans have PFAS in their blood.

In October, a scientific review by an international team of experts for IPEN found "unequivocal evidence from recent studies that firefighters using aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) have unacceptably elevated levels” of two toxic PFAS chemicals in their blood. The study also found that firefighters can be exposed to PFAS chemicals from wearing contaminated personal protective equipment, handling contaminated equipment, managing PFAS foam wastes and working in contaminated fire stations.

Military and civilian firefighters continue to use PFAS firefighting foams that seep into drinking water supplies, contaminating hundreds of military installations. PFAS contamination has been confirmed at nearly 300 military installations. EWG recently identified 138 other military fire and crash training sites where PFAS-based foams were likely used.

“The removal of PFAS from firefighting foam is long overdue,” said Susan Little, the Environmental Working Group’s senior advocate for California government affairs. “Our firefighters and first responders are already asked to put themselves in harm’s way every day. They don’t need the added health hazard of exposure to toxic PFAS. Since PFAS-free foams are already on the market, it makes sense to use them instead of their toxic counterparts.”

In addition to PFAS-based firefighting foams, major sources of contamination include industrial discharges into air and water, and PFAS in food packaging and other consumer products. In September, an EWG review of state data found that drinking water sources for 74 community water systems serving 7.5 million Californians were contaminated with PFAS. All of the detections exceeded 1 part per trillion, or ppt, the safe level recommended by the best independent studies and endorsed by EWG.

Portantino’s S.B. 1056, directing the development of methods to monitor for the full roster of PFAS chemicals, would provide a more accurate picture of contamination, which would in turn equip the state to better protect its citizens against the chemicals’ numerous health risks.  

“The drinking water supply for almost one in five Californians is potentially contaminated with PFAS,” said Little. “To reduce the health risks of exposure, it is critical for the state to learn the scope of existing PFAS contamination in drinking water.”

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