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US continues to tackle PFAS

30 May 2019
Substances used in aircraft firefighting have caused water contamination at and near US airports. Source: iStock/Getty Images

The Trump administration may be keen to roll back environmental legislation, but several US states are moving to address the contamination associated with airport firefighting

Authorities in California and five other US states are pushing forward with plans to collect data on contamination from a class of compounds collectively known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination.

PFAS contamination is linked to health issues that include birth defects, cancers, and infertility. Contamination is typically localised and associated with industrial facilities where PFAS was produced or used to manufacture other products. Such contamination has also been found on or near civilian airports and military airfields, where aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), which contains PFAS, is used by aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) teams.

A May 2019 report from the non-profit Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University found that PFAS contamination of drinking water is present in 43 US states, putting an estimated 19 million citizens at risk in more than 600 locations – including airports and military airbases. Michigan alone has 192 such sites.

In February, the EPA released a PFAS Action Plan, outlining the concrete steps it plans to take over the coming years. The EPA said it will set federal and legally enforceable maximum containment levels (MCLs) for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), two members of the PFAS family; designate those chemicals as hazardous substances; require monitoring for PFAS; and develop interim clean-up standards for PFAS in groundwater.

There are currently no legally enforceable limits for PFAS chemicals. A non-binding health advisory for drinking water from the EPA mentions 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and PFOS, separately or in combination. In late 2017, New Jersey announced its intention to establish a MCL of 14 ppt for PFOA, as the most stringent standard in the country. In Washington State, legislation was passed and signed by the governor that will prohibit almost all sales of firefighting foam containing PFAS from 2020.

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