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TSgt. Brian Virden (left) and MSgt. Bryan Riddell (right) replace legacy firefighting foam at King Salmon AFS, Alaska, with Phos-Chek 3 percent, a C6-based Aqueous Film Forming Foam, on June 14, 2018. Air Force photo.

The new firefighting foam the Air Force began using in June 2018 to reduce toxic contamination of groundwater might actually be more harmful to the environment than the chemical agent it replaced, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonpartisan, non-profit environmental advocate.

The Air Force historically used firefighting foam containing the perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). But last June, USAF began using a new type of firefighting foam, which includes lower levels of PFOS and “only trace amounts of PFOA,” in order to reduce the risk of groundwater contamination.

Now EWG says the new foam may be more dangerous than the one it replaced. Its experts argue the chemical composition of the new foam is actually harder to remove from groundwater and potentially could spread more quickly into surface water.

Arnie Leriche, a retired EPA environmental engineer who lives near the former Wurtsmith AFB, Mich., said the granular activated carbon (or GAC) units used to filter PFAS from groundwater are slightly less effective in removing the shorter-chain chemicals. EWG senior scientist David Andrews added the new chemistry requires more frequent filter changes.  

“We have significant concerns that the replacements are no safer and that we are repeating the same problem,” Andrews said. “The replacement chemicals are incredibly persistent, they do not break down in the environment, and the studies would seem to indicate the potential for significant health harm.”

But federal data suggests the shorter-chain chemicals in the Air Force’s new foam make it safer for humans, the Air Force Civil Engineering Center says.

"The legacy AFFF formula contains long-chain fluorosurfactants, while the new formula contains shorter-chain molecules. Data reviewed by the EPA in 2009 suggests these shorter-chain formulas are less toxic because the chemicals are cleared from the body faster and are not considered bio-accumulative or bio-persistent,” according to the perflourinated compounds FAQ page on AFCEC’s website.

EWG attorney Melanie Benesh said the solution lies in a change to DOD regulations, which dictate that firefighting foams contain “some type of perchlorinated chemical.” While chlorine-free alternatives exist, she added, using them first requires revisions to military standards. However, any change to military specifications for firefighting foam is up to the Navy, Air Force Installation and Mission Support spokesman Mark Kinkade told Air Force Magazine in a March 18 email. The Navy’s also in charge of picking which foam the military uses, he said.

In the meantime, Kinkade said, the new foam isn’t the only step the service is taking to increase safety. The service is also equipping its fire vehicles with a switch that lets it “test functionality without discharging AFFF into the environment,” standardizing and replacing hangar systems that contain the old PFOA/PFOS-containing foam, using “double-lined pits” as the setting for fire training exercises to keep soil and groundwater from being contaminated, and cleaning up “any uncontained releases” of the new foam as soon as they happen.

The New York Times reported March 14 that DOD is seeking permission to increase the acceptable threshold for PFAS contamination in groundwater and to change the way contamination levels are calculated by having separate limits for PFOS and PFOA.

In March 13 testimony before the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said the service has scoured its installations for potential contamination stemming from PFOS- and PFOA-containing firefighting foam, gauged “whether there was any impact to the water,” and taken “mitigating actions.” She called it, “the responsible thing to do.”

However, she told legislators, both the issue and its potential solution are bigger than the Air Force, noting that efforts will most likely be required not only by the EPA and DOD, but also by the Agriculture and Health and Human Services departments.

“This is a major issue for the country of which the Air Force is just one small piece,” she said.