Toxic Fire-Fighting Foams: Seeking Solutions That Already Exist

Chemists at Naval Research Lab Search for a Safer Fire Supressant Foam
Chemists at Naval Research Lab Search for a Safer Fire Supressant Foam

By Pat Elder, December 3, 2019

Military researches environmentally friendly firefighting foams while viable alternatives exist – and are used world-wide.

A recent Department of Defense propaganda piece, Naval Research Lab Chemists Search for PFAS-Free Firefighting Foam continues to perpetuate the Pentagon’s false narrative that fluorine-free foams currently available on the market are an unsuitable alternative to the carcinogenic foams they currently use in practice drills and emergencies.

The U.S. military uses aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) to extinguish fuel fires, particularly those involving aircraft. The DOD reports in the November, 2019 article:

“The key ingredient that makes the foams so effective is a fluorocarbon surfactant, said Katherine Hinnant, a chemical engineer at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington. The problem with fluorocarbons is that they don’t degrade once they’re used. And that’s not good for humans, she said.”

This sounds genuine, but it is an outrageous statement coming from an institution that has known these chemicals are poisonous for two generations, has contaminated huge swaths of the earth with them, and is intent on continuing to use them.  It is maddening that much of the world has moved beyond the cancer-causing foams and has begun using extraordinarily capable flourine-free foams while the U.S. military is adamant about continuing its use of the carcinogens. 

We must come to understand the Pentagon’s pathology. Following the chemical engineer’s statement above, the DOD references the EPA’s “lifetime drinking water health advisory for two substances in the PFAS family: perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA.”  

Military and corporate defenders of the use of fluorinated, poisonous fire-fighting foams that leach into soils and contaminate local drinking water supplies often focus on the use of PFOS and PFOA. These are two of the most devastating varieties of the overall family of more than 5,000 suspected carcinogenic PFAS (per-and poly fluoroalkyl) substances.) Those who poison us would like us to never know how many billions of gallons of water in our aquifers – or cubic yards of our ground have been contaminated by these two chemicals, along with a wide variety of other deadly PFAS chemicals.

So, they muddle the message and they ballyhoo their discontinued usage of these two types of PFAS while continuing to use other carcinogenic fluorinated substitutes. Here’s how they put it:  

“This year, the Navy updated the Military Specification for AFFF to set limits for PFOS and PFOA at the lowest detectable levels and removed the fluorine requirement. The Naval Research Laboratory is trying to find a replacement for AFFF that is just as effective at putting out fuel fires but does not contain any PFAS.”

The recent modification removing the fluorine requirement changes a specification that has been in force since 1967. The Navy initially established Mil Spec -F-24385,  the precise military specifications for Aqueous Film Forming Foam, mandating the use of fluorinated cancer-causing foams. This may be seen as progress, although the military is far from actually swapping out the carcinogenic foams used worldwide.

Fire Fighting Foam Types

Most of the world follows the lead of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to manage the administration and governance of international air travel. The ICAO has approved several fluorine-free firefighting foams (known as F3) that have matched the performance of AFFF used by the U.S. military. F3 foams are widely used at major airports worldwide, including major international hubs such as Dubai, Dortmund, Stuttgart, London Heathrow, Manchester, Copenhagen, and Auckland Koln, and Bonn. All of the 27 major airports in Australia have transitioned to F3 foams. Private sector companies using F3 foams include BP and ExxonMobil.

The Europeans and the industrial goliaths are more concerned with the health and safety of their world than the Pentagon. 

Europeans working with the ICAO privately express bewilderment at an American system that clearly puts corporate profit over public health. An expert panel convened by International Pollutants Elimination Network, (IPEN), gathered in Rome in 2018. IPEN is a global network of public interest NGOs working together for a world in which toxic chemicals are no longer produced or used in ways that harm human health and the environment.  The panel reported on fluorine-free fire-fighting foams. Their report takes a swipe at American indifference to this human health epidemic. 

“There is considerable resistance from vested interests and lobbying groups representing the US chemical industry to these changes, with many unfounded or untrue assertions and myths, downplaying the effectiveness and operational efficiency or safety of fluorine-free foams.”

There is a war of words between the Europeans and the U.S. over the use of these carcinogens, completely off the radar of the for-profit U.S. media. The world-wide human health consequences are staggering. 

There’s usually a zinger in these missives by the DOD and here’s this one on the Navy chemists searching for fluorine-free foam: 

“Although the EPA has identified PFOS and PFOA as potentially harmful in their health advisory, Hinnant said, other PFAS might be deemed harmful in the future. So, chemists at the Naval Research Laboratory are looking for a fluorine-free foam, or F3, replacement that is not harmful to health and that can rapidly extinguish fuel fires, she said.”

“Other PFAS might be deemed harmful in the future?” This is another outrageous statement because many of the world’s leading academic institutions and scientists, along with local and federal governments, have switched to extraordinarily capable non-carcinogenic, fluorine-free substitutes. That’s because they’re paying attention to the science and moving to protect their people. 

The Pentagon is communicating something else here. When they write, “Other PFAS might be deemed harmful in the future,” they’re not referring to the science. They’ve known the damning science for 50 years.  Instead, they’re referring to the EPA or Congress and the unpredictable winds of political change. Human suffering and environmental destruction won’t deter the Pentagon’s actions, but the EPA or Congress just might one day.  

The military understands that allowing foam from routine fire-fighting drills to leach into the soil poses a grave threat to public health for many generations to come. They know the carcinogens travel underground to contaminate municipal and private drinking wells, providing a direct pathway to human ingestion. They realize PFAS passes from a mother’s milk to her newborn. They know it causes kidney, liver and testicular cancer and that it causes horrendous suffering and a host of childhood diseases. They know and they don’t care. 

The end of this particular PFAS-related DOD propaganda piece says the military will continue its research of fluorine-free foams, “Spencer Giles, a Naval Research Laboratory research chemist based in Washington, said that if a substance shows promise, it is delivered to a Navy lab in Maryland, where large-scale burn testing takes place.”

Naval Research Laboratory, Chesapeake Bay Detachment (NRL-CBD)

That lab is the Naval Research Laboratory, Chesapeake Bay Detachment (NRL-CBD) in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland, a highly contaminated facility about 35 miles southeast of Washington. The NRL-CBD provides facilities to the NRL in Washington for fire-suppression research.

The Naval Research Lab - Chesapeake Beach Detachment (NRL-CBD) sits atop a 100’ high bluff overlooking the Chesapeake Bay.
The Naval Research Lab – Chesapeake Beach Detachment (NRL-CBD) sits atop a 100’ high bluff overlooking the Chesapeake Bay.

The military history of the place, with a majestic view above the Chesapeake, goes back to 1941. Since then, the Navy has been using the site for a host of  environmentally destructive experiments, including the use of natural uranium, depleted uranium (DU), and thorium. The Navy conducted DU in high velocity impact studies in Building 218C and Building 227.  The last use of DU at Chesapeake Beach was in the fall of 1992.  The use of PFAS in firefighting experiments, however, is the Navy’s most egregious environmental crime at this beautiful Maryland location. 

Since 1968, the Fire Training Area has been used to test extinguishing agents on fires started with various fuel sources. The tests were conducted by creating a fire on a concrete testing pad by the open burning of petroleum products that included gasoline, diesel, and jet-propulsion fuel. According to a report on PFAS by CH2M Hill in 2017:

These operations utilize two open burning areas and two smokehouses. Fire suppressants tested include AFFF [aqueous film forming foam], PKP (potassium bicarbonate), halons, and protein foam (“bean soup”). Typically, wastewater containing these solutions is drained into a holding pit and allowed to absorb slowly into the soil.  

This is a crime against humanity and the earth. 

In 2018 the DOD included The Chesapeake Bay Detachment on a list of military sites most contaminated with PFAS.  Groundwater was shown to contain 241,010 parts per trillion (ppt) of PFOS/PFOA.

Chesapeake Beach firefighters
Source: US Naval Research Lab Chesapeake Beach Detachment (NRLCBD)

The EPA and the state of Maryland have no enforceable regulations in place to control the military’s wanton, destructive behavior. Meanwhile, some states limit the chemicals in groundwater to levels under 20 ppt. NRL-CBD’s astonishingly high levels of PFAS are remarkable, especially for a base without a runway. For two generations Navy techs have been travelling from Washington to “the beach” to conduct ghastly experiments. 

The Navy has kept a low profile on the contamination. Most folks in Chesapeake Beach are unaware of the problem, while the Southern Maryland press has largely skirted the issue. There has been no public scrutiny of the Navy’s scant testing program of private wells in the surrounding community.  

Throughout the country, the Navy has selectively tested wells in communities adjacent to their bases. In Chesapeake Beach the Navy never tested the wells of its closest neighbors who live about 1,000 feet from the burn pit that was used for decades.

Although carcinogenic plumes may travel for miles, the Navy did not test private wells just 1,000 feet from the burn area. The testing area is shown in the green triangle. The burn area is shown in yellow.
Although carcinogenic plumes may travel for miles, the Navy did not test private wells just 1,000 feet from the burn area. The testing area is shown in the green triangle. The burn area is shown in yellow.

In this 2017 exchange, representatives of the Maryland Dept. of the Environment and the Naval command discuss whether the contamination from the surficial aquifer, that is, the groundwater closest to the surface, ranging from 3’ to 10’ below the ground, can reach the deeper aquifer, from which most wells in the area draw their water. The Navy says the domestic wells north of the Chesapeake Beach base are “believed to be screened in the Piney Point Aquifer,” and that this is below a confining unit, “believed to be laterally continuous and fully confining.”

To be clear, the Navy is arguing there’s no way the contamination can reach into the lower aquifer while the Maryland Department of the Environment is saying it “cannot be definitively stated that this zone is under a fully confining and laterally continuous unit.” In other words, the state is saying it may be possible for the carcinogens from the fire training to reach people’s drinking water.

Altogether, the Navy  sampled 40 wells in the vicinity.  Three wells out of a total of 40 were found to contain PFAS, although the Navy is not divulging precise levels. Apparently, the aquifers are not separated by a “continuous and fully confining unit,”  Otherwise no contamination would have been found. 

There’s been a sudden awakening in America over these chemicals during the last few months, although the military has escaped a large degree of the scrutiny. 

The media is slow to pick up on it, while the Pentagon spins a deceitful web.





One Response

  1. Thank you for your article, it is very well written. I was wondering if I could use the picture “Fire fighting foam types” in a presentation I am working on?

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