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May 28, 2019 4:43 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Fire Foams Move Away From PFOS/PFOA, But Questions Linger

Concerns about water contamination have led to bans on the use of PFOA and PFOS in fire fighting foam, but similar chemicals are still used.
May 28, 2019 4:55 PM

Thanks to their suddenly being detected in drinking water supplies in communities across much of the United States, the chemicals PFOA and PFOS have become among the most notorious in recent years, despite a slim understanding of their impacts on human health.

The two chemicals are most notable for their “persistence” once released into the environment, meaning they can linger and accumulate in soil or groundwater—or a human body—for decades. Research is still developing, but they are feared to be potential carcinogens.

Because of those fears, the chemicals have largely been eliminated from use in products made in the United States, in particular the fire foams that have been blamed for much of the drinking water contamination across the country—including in Wainscott, Hampton Bays and Westhampton.

Firefighting foams are still manufactured and used widely, and they still mostly use new versions of the same class of chemicals that include PFOS and PFOA, chemicals grouped under the term PFAS. The new chemicals are altered to a form known as short-chain, referring to the number of carbon molecules they link together, and are believed to be not as harmful or as likely to contaminate the environment as their predecessors.

But some skeptics are doubtful and say these new chemicals may just be in the same class as PFOS and PFOA were before their concerning attributes came into view relatively recently.

Four U.S. senators, including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, have introduced legislation that would ban the use or storage of firefighting foams that contain any PFAS on federal military bases.

Scientists say there are reasons to see the newer PFAS as less of a concern—but also plenty of reasons to be wary of their use as well.

“There are mixed opinions,” said Arjun Venkatesan, an adjunct professor of civil engineering at Stony Brook University and the associate director for drinking water initiatives at the New York State Center for Clean Water Technology. “But we are all in agreement that these are persistent chemicals. They are designed to stay in the environment for a very, very long time. The whole point of these chemicals is their resistance to temperature and water.”

In some ways, the new short-chain PFAS may pose even more vexing difficulties once they are in the environment. They are highly “mobile,” Mr. Venkatesan says, and can dissolve and be transported long distances by groundwater flow, possibly even more fluidly than PFOS and PFOA, making them harder to filter out than their predecessors.

Filters that use carbon, like charcoal, can effectively filter PFOS and PFOA from drinking water. The Suffolk County Water Authority has been installing filter systems, at a cost of nearly $1 million each, on its wells that have shown signs of PFOS/PFOA contamination in recent years. The filters have to be changed regularly, at a cost of several thousand dollars each time, depending on the levels of contamination, and Mr. Venkatesan said short-chain PFAS may be even more slippery and require more frequent filter changes.

But they also have characteristics that would seem to indicate they are less likely to bio-accumulate in the bodies of animals like humans and fish, and therefore may pose less of a health risk.

The rub is that research on all of these chemicals is still too new, or incomplete, for scientists to really gauge what the dangers are and at what levels, and what periods of time should be concerning.

Mr. Venkatesan’s working group at Stony Brook is focusing on treatments for PFAS in water. Scientists elsewhere are now starting to conduct in-depth testing of the actual effects of the chemicals on humans and animals. Definitive results are a long way away—years, possibly decades—but there are some links of certain PFAS to higher cholesterol levels and indications of carcinogenic characteristics in others.

The Suffolk County Water Authority has said it has been frustrated by the slow pace of the federal and state authorities classifying PFOS and PFOA as contaminants, which would allow funding to flow toward treatments. Officials from the water supplier have said that protecting against PFAS could cost it $1 billion in the coming years, and that’s if only PFOS and PFOA are found to be of concern.

The unknowns of other forms of the chemicals have others calling for broader protection measures.

“Toxic PFAS exposure is putting the health of New Yorkers and people across the country at risk,” Ms. Gillibrand said in a statement last week about the proposal to end the use of the chemical on federal bases. “In communities in New York and across the country, there is a clear link between the use of PFAS firefighting foam on military bases and dangerous levels of PFAS in the drinking water of surrounding communities. This is unacceptable and Congress has an obligation to ensure the DOD is no longer buying and using this toxic foam.”

In Wainscott, State Department of Environmental Conservation investigators say the contamination of hundreds of drinking wells south of East Hampton Airport would seem to have emanated from a few sites where fire-suppressant foams were sprayed between the 1980s and the early 2000s, when PFOS and PFOA foams were taken out of service.

The East Hampton Fire Department now uses a foam called Universal Gold C6, according to Village Administrator Rebecca Hansen. The foam is produced by the National Foam Corporation, one of several foam manufacturers that are the target of numerous class-action lawsuits by residents and municipalities, including East Hampton Town, that have found their groundwater to be contaminated by PFOS/PFOA. The company’s dossier on Universal Gold specifically says it does not contain PFOS/PFOA and contains no “reportable” ingredients under federal liability regulations, but the C6 in the name refers to the carbon molecule count of other PFAS chemicals.

Whether the presence of the new chemicals should be of concern is a question likely long from being answered, Mr. Venkatesan said.

“These products are very similar, and that is why researchers are asking whether these will just cause the same troubles,” he said. “There is research being done, but we don’t know what the real impacts of these changes are yet.”

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