The AFFF foam (contains PFAS), which is mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration, includes hazardous compounds that do not degrade over time. According to former firefighters, the foam was used widely and was rarely cleaned up.
When the Department of Defense began investigating chemical contamination at its military bases near the Pittsburgh airport, one of the first steps was to talk to seven of its officers, including the fire chief and the environmental officer.
The military used these reports to determine which parts of the base might be contaminated with PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) and which rivers they might have entered.
The adjacent Pittsburgh International Airport has its own fire department. So PublicSource spoke with five former firefighters who worked there between 1972 and 2010 about how PFAS-containing aqueous film-forming foam [AFFF] was typically used. Their accounts, along with the military’s report, airport records and scientists studying PFAS, indicate that contamination at the airport is likely.
Airport officials say they are doing everything required by law, but declined to say whether they are taking additional steps to protect residents. PublicSource asked the airport in December for documents describing tests, environmental assessments or reports related to PFAS contamination. None were provided.
Firefighters who spoke with PublicSource recalled using the foam without regard to cleanup: covering spills with it, spraying it on the ground during tests and practicing with it in the woods on oil fires, including in North Park.
Bob Scharding, an airport firefighter from 1987 to 2007, spoke of a lack of environmental concern early in his career. “There used to be an anti-environmental attitude,” he said. “It’s hard to believe that the National Guard base was comparable to what the agency’s fire department did”
“Nobody ever talked about pollution,” said Bryan Dopler, a firefighter who worked at the airport from 1986 to 2006.
The firefighting foam contains PFAS, a toxic class of chemicals linked to cancer, kidney disease and hormone disruption. The airport has used AFFF since the 1970s. Because PFAS cannot be broken down, the spill is likely still in the ground. The airport switched to what it believes is a safer foam sometime between 2000 and 2012, but has not said when it made the switch. Scientists say there is not enough information to say with certainty how safe the PFAS chemicals in the new AFFF are.
The way AFFF was handled at the Pittsburgh airport is similar to the way it is handled at airports across the continent. A 2017 National Science Foundation study that surveyed 167 airports in the United States and Canada between 2015 and 2016 found that fewer than 7% of airports treated AFFF like hazardous waste during training and fewer than 7% said they contained and cleaned up AFFF after it was on the ground. And about four in five airports said they left AFFF on the ground to “disperse,” “soak up,” or “dilute.”
Only 22% of airports reported that using “bins or containers” to prevent AFFF spills is a best practice. Only 3% of airports responding to the survey in 2015 and 2016 indicated that they were aware of PFAS contamination at their airports. Since then, several airports have learned of the contamination and taken action. According to Justin Barkowski, vice president of regulatory affairs at the American Association of Airport Executives, “most” airports have started testing.”
Christopher Higgins, a scientist studying PFAS contamination at the Colorado School of Mines, said Pittsburgh and many of these other airports are almost certainly contaminated.
“If they have their own fire training facility,” he said, “it’s almost a guarantee they have their own plume emanating from that facility.”
A More Effective, But Also More “Deadly” Foam
“It smelled like when a baby shit its diapers,” Yeck said. “They said it was made out of animal guts and stuff like that.”
But there were problems with that foam. Yeck said the foam would cause certain pipes to corrode and it wouldn’t work in certain weather conditions.
“If it was rainy, it would thin it out too much. If it was hot and sunny, it would dry it out too much,” he said.
In the early 1970s, Yeck said, the airport fire department transitioned to AFFF.
One advantage of AFFF versus protein foam is that it combines with water, giving fire trucks far greater foam capacity. For every 100 gallons of foam, just 3 litres of AFFF and 97 gallons of water are required.
How much AFFF Leaked into the environment?
The exact volume of Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF) purchased over the years remained uncertain to the firefighters; however, the airport’s records paint a clearer picture, detailing receipts and purchase orders totaling 4,950 gallons between 2012 and 2018, amounting to an expenditure of $110,314.
According to Bob Kerlik, the airport authority’s director of public relations, the airport tests its foam two to three times each year and that “control systems and procedures are in place to minimize potential impacts.” Kerlik did not define what such control systems or processes are, nor did he say whether the AFFF is still leaking into the soil, groundwater, and streams, as the firemen said throughout their carrer time at the airport.
“We never put it inside a building,” stated Scharding. “Everything was always outside. So everything the airport had purchased in the previous 40 years had to be buried or dumped into the waterways. I’m at a loss for ideas as to where it may have gone.”
Even attempting to wash it into the ground or storm drains was challenging, according to Scharding, because adding water to the AFFF concentration sometimes resulted in additional foam. “It was hell to get up,” he said. “Like spilling detergent, you could squirt it and squirt it and squirt it, except this is detergent on steroids.”
According to James Nee, who served as an airport fireman from 1980 to 2003, said that they didn’t waste foam for superfluous causes and intended to use all of the foam they bought since it was expensive. “It has a shelf life period,” he said. “You have to use it within a certain time limit before it loses its ability to do what it’s supposed to do.”
The firemen recall that commercial planes also discharged a substantial amount of foam.
Although the level of PFAS pollution can vary depending on a variety of factors, including local hydrology and geology, the recent poisoning in Burrillville, Rhode Island, shows how little AFFF contamination is necessary to have significant consequences.
The fire department in Burrillville, a community of approximately 15,000 people, spilled “maybe a gallon or two” of AFFF, according to Matt DeStefano, deputy chief of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. As a result, more than 30 houses had to start getting bottled water since the pollution in their well water exceeded the EPA’s health guideline. The municipality is now constructing a $3 million water connection to link homeowners to municipal water.
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