Firefighting Foam Linked to Water Contamination, Injuries Under Fire

by Barrie Barber, originally posted on September 12, 2016


A fire suppressant foam linked to the shutdown of two drinking water wells at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base injured a firefighter during a training incident and the Defense Department has launched an investigation to determine how widespread the problem is across the nation.

The firefighter, Michael R. Strouse, was injured when piping inside a fire cab ruptured and shot the chemical at high pressure into his eyes, he said.

“My face was chemically burned and my eyes were really blood shot and they were sore,” Strouse said in an interview with this newspaper. “Then the next day I was actually taken off the job.”

Strouse, 38, a veteran firefighter for more than a decade at Wright-Patterson, was reassigned to administrative duties. But his condition gradually worsened, he said. He’s now been off work for more than three months.

The injury to Strouse comes as concerns over aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF, have soared in recent years.

AFFF has been used in training by the military since the 1970s and is considered more effective than water to extinguish petroleum-based fires.

But it is suspected of causing groundwater contamination — not just here but in communities near Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, where some drinking wells were shut down this year.

The Defense Department has launched an investigation to determine how widespread the problem is at hundreds of military bases. A preliminary list is expected by early next year, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. James B. Brindle said.

The wells in Colorado had levels of perfluorinated compounds found in AFFF that exceed U.S. EPA levels — in one case 20 times the threshold, according to media reports. At issue are the compounds in AFFF known as perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluoroctanoic acid (PFOA), which some researchers suggest have been linked to cancer and other health ailments.

At Wright-Patterson the Air Force says the old foam will be incinerated and replaced with an environmentally safer foam as part of an Air Force-wide $29 million effort to rid bases worldwide of the potentially carcinogenic compound. The replacement foam is free of PFOS and has little to no PFOA, according to the military.

The drinking water at Wright-Patterson is now safe to drink, according to base officials.

The Air Force says AFFF will no longer be used in training exercises. If used on an emergency basis it will be treated as a hazardous material, according to the Air Force.

The old foam was sprayed for more than two decades in exercises at Wright-Patterson, according to base spokeswoman Marie Vanover.

“There is approximately 14,000 gallons of AFFF in the inventory and we will ensure it is disposed of in a proper and safe manner,” she said in an email.

However, the union that represents Wright-Patt firefighters, concerned about its members’ exposure to the chemical, balked at the base’s initial plan to use firefighters to remove the foam from trucks and storage.

‘Unnecessary exposure’

Wright-Patterson firefighters’ concerns arose when Strouse was injured on the job.

Steven McKee, secretary/treasurer with the International Association of Firefighters Local F88, said the union had expected to “fervently battle” initial plans to use firefighters to remove it from trucks and storage.

“Obviously, handling it is an issue,” said McKee, also a firefighter.

Base officials have since said they would use contractors for the foam cleanup at a cost of $4,000. Wright-Patt has more than 75 firefighters and about 15 fire trucks.

“It’s unnecessary exposure for us,” said Brian L. Grubb, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local F-88, which represents Wright-Patterson firefighters.

The issue of who will remove AFFF is under contention at other Air Force Materiel Command bases in Georgia, Oklahoma, Massachusetts and California, union leaders say. The IAFF says it asked to negotiate the removal at those bases but was rebuffed by senior Air Force leaders who said refilling AFFF was a long-standing firefighter responsibility.

“We’re concerned about any exposures, especially if we have another catastrophic failure” in a fire truck, said Roy Colbrunn, an IAFF district field service representative and former Wright-Patterson firefighter. The process would require firefighters to drain and rinse trucks three times.

“This is a hazardous material we feel should be remediated by a specialized trained workforce, not the firefighters,” he said.

AFMC spokesman Derek Kaufman said each base has the authority to make its own decision on the issue. Historically, firefighters have refilled AFFF in trucks and equipment, he said in an email.

Firefighters are trained to handle AFFF and many are certified hazardous materials technicians “trained and paid to handle the most hazardous chemicals the Air Force deals with,” Kaufman wrote.

He said the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine evaluated the health risk and concluded the process of draining, rising and refilling AFFF “presented a low health risk to the workers, who only require limited personal protective clothing.”

Wright-Patt complaint filed

Strouse and the two firefighters in the truck cab with him last October have shown “elevated levels” of perfluorinated chemicals in their blood since the incident, Grubb wrote in a complaint to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Centers for Disease Control.

A full NIOSH investigation on the union complaint could take a year. The agency sent investigators to Wright-Patterson within the past two weeks.

“What I hope will come from it will be changes in the way the Air Force investigates accidents,” Grubb said.

In preliminary recommendations released Friday, NIOSH investigators told Wright-Patterson that firefighting employees should wear protective clothing and equipment, such as a face shield and closed toe shoes, when transferring AFFF; flush exposed skin with large amounts of water; and update operating procedures on safe work practices and protective equipment.

The three-decade-old fire truck Strouse was injured in was pulled out of service Sept. 1 immediately after the NIOSH inspectors visit and fire chiefs removed the foam out of the vehicle, Grubb said.

Vanover said a safety investigation into the cause of the incident that led to Strouse’s injury was inconclusive. “There is no history that the truck had any maintenance issues,” she said in a statement.

Drinking well shutdown

The city of Dayton quietly shut down seven water production wells at Huffman Dam near the boundary of the base fence line in June in what a city environmental manager called a “precautionary measure,” but the city says it has not detected the suspected compounds in the production wells or the water distribution system that serves 400,000 customers. The wells remain closed.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency extended emergency orders for 90 days shutting down the two water production wells in Area A at Wright-Patterson where water contamination was first detected and required monthly sampling.

Wright-Patterson and other military bases aren’t alone. Highly fluorinated chemicals have contaminated drinking water supplies of more than 6 million Americans, at military bases, airports, and industrial sites, according to estimates of researchers at Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley and elsewhere.

In July, the Air Force announced plans to spend $4.3 million to treat wells in Colorado communities near Peterson Air Force Base “at which preliminary indications are that the service may be a potentially responsible party for the PFOA/PFOS contamination,” Air Force Civil Engineer Center spokesman Mark D. Kinkade said in a statement to this newspaper.

Health risks

Studies have linked highly fluorinated chemicals with kidney and testicular cancer, high cholesterol, obesity, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disruption, lower birth weight and size, liver malfunction and hormone changes, according to the independent, non-profit Green Science Policy Institute in Berkeley, Calif.

But a Centers for Disease Control spokesperson said “more research is needed to confirm or rule out possible links between health effects of potential concern and exposure” to perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The substances are found in many products, from pizza boxes to cell phones, researchers say.

Some, but not all studies have shown certain PFAS may increase the risk of cancer, cholesterol, and impact growth, learning and behavior in children and fetuses, decrease fertility and adversely affect the immune system, according to CDC spokesperson Taka L. Allende.

The CDC is in the midst of a study on the potential health impact of “exposure to these compounds from contaminated drinking water,” Allende said in an email.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lowered the lifetime exposure guidelines for humans to 70 parts per trillion, which prompted the shut down in May of two drinking wells at Wright-Patterson and a drinking water advisory — since lifted — for pregnant women and infants.

EPA emergency orders extended

Ohio EPA Director Craig W. Butler extended emergency orders for 90 days in late August to shut down the two drinking water wells in Area A and required Wright-Patterson officials to sample wells monthly to detect potential contamination.

“While none of the production wells are currently above the health advisory level the elevated presence of PFOA/PFOS requires continued monitoring to ensure that drinking water above the health advisory level is not put into distribution,” Butler said in an Aug. 23 directive to base commander Col. Bradley W. McDonald.

The Ohio EPA pressed Wright-Patterson officials to expand a groundwater monitoring network to fill in “data gaps” to determine where a plume of contamination could head. Wright-Patterson plans to add 50 groundwater monitoring wells in coming weeks and, for the first time, sample the Mad River to find how far contamination has spread.

The Air Force expects to investigate nearly 200 active duty, Air National Guard and closed bases where the foam may have been sprayed. The foam was used widely in training exercises in the military since the 1970s.

In a statement, a Pentagon spokesman said the U.S. military “is committed to working closely with regulators, communities, and other stakeholders to protect human health and take action so that DoD continues to provide safe drinking water to its servicemen and their families.”

No federal enforceable standards

Cincinnati attorney Robert Bilott said he contacted the U.S. EPA in 2001 to tell the agency of the health threats the compounds posed in drinking water. He said he learned of the risks while involved in litigation against chemical manufacturer DuPont in West Virginia.

“There is still no federal enforceable standard for these chemicals in drinking water,” he said.

U.S. EPA set threshold guidelines — but not enforceable standards — in May 2016, he added.

He questioned if any threshold level was safe.

“This chemical will build up in human blood when you’re exposed to even the tiniest amounts over time,” he said.

When contacted for a response, an agency spokeswoman said U.S. EPA’s review into the potential risks associated with PFOA began in the 1990s.

An environmental researcher said the “regrettable substitutes” to replace AFFF are “equally persistent and can be more difficult to filter out of drinking water.”

“There are non-fluorinated firefighting foams that should be considered for use instead,” Arlene Blum, a study co-author and executive director of the independent, non-profit Green Sciences Policy Institute in Berkley, Calif., said in an email.

Firefighter speaks out

Strouse said he wants to spread the message of what happened to him to avoid it happening to another firefighter.

Since the incident, his eyes burn painfully frequently, leaving him unable to drive, he said.

“I no longer drive a car anymore,” said Strouse, who once drove fire trucks. “My wife carts me around.”

Inside and outdoors, he wears sunglasses to shield his eyes from light.

Doctors diagnosed him with dry eye disease, and rosacea, a skin inflammation condition, and pingueculae, or small yellow bumps on his eyes, he said and medical documents show.

A physician’s evaluation showed Strouse experienced exposure to AFFF to his eyes, ears and mucus membranes. The health record also said lab tests showed the “core chemicals contained in AFFF were elevated within his serum.”

A July 2016 medical report, signed by a doctor, said Strouse was “unable to perform the duties of the job” because of his medical condition.

Three months prior to the incident, Strouse said he passed a job-related health exam “with flying colors.”

A medical doctor has not conclusively linked the health issues to the exposure to foam, but medical authorities have tied the health problems to the incident in the fire truck cab, Strouse said.

“Basically, what happened was when the chemical shot in my eyes … it damaged the ability of my eyes to tear and keep lubricated,” he said.

Strouse’s wife, Terri, has watched his health worsen.

“I’m very angry about this,” she said. “This could have been avoided.”

“I just wish his quality of life could be better instead of always suffering,” she said.

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