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Washington could ban cancer-causing chemicals used to fight fires

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 23, 2018

OLYMPIA – Local fire departments could be banned from using a group of fire-fighting chemicals that are contaminating some wells in Airway Heights and other water sources near military bases.

Those chemicals last a long time, are almost indestructible under most natural situations and travel easily through the soil to get into underground water supplies, the House Environment Committee was told Tuesday. They are a key ingredient in some foams used to extinguish fuel fires, and are also commonly applied to firefighters’ protective gear.

They may also be responsible for a high rate of cancers in firefighters, said Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, who is sponsoring a bill to restrict the use of perfluorinated or polyfluorinated compounds, or PFAS, starting in July 2020.

“Cancer is now the leading cause of job-related deaths for firefighters,” Peterson said.

All instances of water contaminated by PFAS in Washington are tied to the use of fire-fighting foams, Erika Schreder, of Toxic Free Future, said. In Airway Heights, the contamination is linked to fire-fighting practice with the foam on Fairchild Air Force Base.

The state can’t tell the Defense Department not to use PFAS foams on its bases, or the Federal Aviation Administration not to require their use at airports. The bill is directed at local fire departments and fire districts, some of which are already finding substitutes or altering training to reduce the use of the foam except in real emergencies.

“It doesn’t take much of this to ruin an aquifer,” Steven Swanson, a retired emergency room physician from Coupeville who said his and his neighbors’ wells are contaminated from PFAS use on a nearby naval station.

But Jessica Bowman, of the FluoroCouncil, an organization that represents companies that manufacture fluoro-based products, argued the legislation is too broad.

The foam from Fairchild and other military installations had older compounds that are no longer sold or used, Bowman said. The new PFAS are not carcinogenic, she said, and are critical to fighting fires in aviation fuels.

Barb Morrissey, of the state Department of Health, said even the new chemicals are extremely mobile if they get into the soil and have a high potential to wind up in drinking water. Cleanup at that point is “incredibly expensive,” and there are no guidelines for safe levels of those chemicals, she said.

Mary Catherine McAleer, of the Association of Washington Business, said that group also opposes the bill and suggested the focus should be on preventing spills, not banning the foam altogether.

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