Airport action to clean up firefighting foam containing PFAS

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Jet engines taxied on the tarmac, their fumes filling the firefighting bays at the Port of Seattle on an early summer day. Hoses connected tanks and filters in a complex cleaning operation.

For six days, the system flushed the toxic substance from the fire truck, and the department became one of the first in the country to begin removing firefighting foam concentrates laced with the “forever chemicals.”

For decades, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, or PFAS, have been used in foams to extinguish the most intense fires caused by petroleum products, especially when it comes to saving lives in disasters at airports, military bases and fossil fuel refineries.

But the chemicals left behind a deadly legacy.

PFAS manufacturers knew the product was toxic but hid it for decades. But firefighters, who were often covered in the foams during training or extinguishing fires, only learned about the harmful effects of these substances on people and the environment in recent years.

Faced with a wave of state and federal legislation and regulations that seek to phase out the chemicals and offer safer alternatives, Sea-Tac says it is the first U.S. airport to use the cleaning technology.

Washington will require the state’s 11 commercial airports to remove PFAS products and replace them by fall 2025. The problem? They can’t just literally throw away the toxic chemicals. Some argue that cleaning equipment requires more than just water.

For some local firefighters who lived through the PFAS era and lost friends and colleagues along the way, the new requirements are a victory.

“For some of my friends, it’s a little too late,” said former Port of Seattle Firefighters Union President Thomas Sanchez. “I’m very happy for the people out there. Maybe they’ll have a little more time.”

“This should be a warning”

After dumping 5-gallon buckets of yellow PFAS concentrate into the tanks of fire trucks, firefighters’ hands felt like they were coated in a “Teflon-like” coating, Sanchez recalled. The substance on their skin repelled water and didn’t wash off easily, he said.

They trained with it until they were soaked in white, frothy liquid. Covering rookie firefighters with foam was a rite of passage for a while.

“Everybody used it,” Sanchez said of the foam. “If you were in the fire department, you had foam on your car.”

Firefighters were assured that these foams were safe, biodegradable and did not pose a threat to the environment.

Then people started getting sick.

Harry Evans was a Sea-Tac firefighter for 28 years. He was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 1993. He retired from the Port of Seattle Fire Department three years later. In 2006, the cancer spread to his pancreas and intestines.

Evans served alongside Gilbert Smith Jr. and was routinely exposed to PFAS foams during training, including quarterly pit fires. Just seven months after retiring from the Port of Seattle, Smith, a 31-year-old retired Sea-Tac crew veteran, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died of the disease in 2015. He was 60.

In 2016, less than a year after Smith’s death, a third Sea-Tac firefighter, Alvin Vaughn, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died last Christmas at age 61.

Smith and Vaughn are currently believed to have been killed in the line of duty.

Port of Seattle Fire Chief Randy Krause and his firefighters have submitted to blood tests, and many of the results, including his own, show elevated levels of various types of PFAS.

“Firefighters handle buckets of this stuff and are exposed to it,” Michael White of the Washington State Council of Firefighters testified before the Legislature in support of a 2018 bill to restrict its use. He said he had “become an expert in watching my brothers and sisters get cancer.”

Meanwhile, 3M, DuPont, Chemours and other manufacturers knew about the toxicity of these chemicals for decades and covered it up.

According to a January 9, 1978, internal 3M memo by chemist Eric Reiner, the tightly bound fluorocarbons were “completely resistant to biodegradation.”

Other 3M studies have documented the toxicity of fire-fighting foam to fish, plants, and, in high concentrations, to laboratory animals, including rhesus macaques.

3M later confirmed the findings of independent researchers who found widespread PFAS in blood samples from blood banks in the 1970s, according to documents released in federal court and recently published by ProPublica and The New Yorker.

In 1998, company researchers recommended a “safe” level of PFOS in the blood that was lower than what was found in 3M’s population studies, according to court documents.

“There should be a warning for us,” Sanchez said. “But no one ever said it’s bad for you.”

“Pour some soap in there”

Last month, in a truck bay in Sea-Tac, contractors used an electric drill to mix a bucket of a honey-like solution known as PerfluorAd.

The solution is like an organic dishwashing liquid that contains plant-based oleic acid, the same acid found in vegetable oil, said David Fleming, founder of TRS, a Washington-based truck cleaning company.

Five commercial international airports in the U.S. have phased out PFAS foams, Krause said. But Sea-Tac is the first to use the cleaning technology. Some others use only water, he said.

“If you put the dishes in the dishwasher and use cold water, do they come out clean? They don’t,” Krause said. “If you put warm water in, they might be a little cleaner, but you need a solution. So I add a little soap and that cleans them. That’s what we do.”

The solution used in the Sea-Tac process has been used at airports in Europe.

The Federal Aviation Administration, as well as the Department of Defense, required airports to stock PFAS products until last fall, although airports in Europe, Canada and Australia have switched to alternative foams.

The cost of cleaning each truck using this method is $50,000 to $70,000, compared with more than $1 million to buy a new truck. Sea-Tac is cleaning and switching to new foams on five trucks. The authority also invited King County Airport to bring in trucks to be cleaned.

The solution is mixed with water and heated, then introduced into a tank and pipes in a truck, then passed through a series of filters.

PerfluorAd essentially binds with PFAS to pull it out of the tank and pipes through a process called flocculation. It comes out as a gelatinous substance and is drained through filters that leave behind a PFAS sediment. The remaining water and solution are filtered through liquid granular activated carbon.

The purified water is stored in a large tank to be recycled through the recycling process or discharged into the sewer system.

The King County Wastewater Division approved the wastewater discharge. A representative from the Ecology Department also visited the site to observe the cleanup process.

Krause had been waiting for this moment for over a decade.

In 2010, he took over as chief of the Port of Seattle Fire Department and has long wanted to rid the department of every last drop of junk. He testified before the Legislature on behalf of a bill that, when passed, restricted most foam sales in the state and required fire departments to stop training with the concentrate.

The bill was opposed by the Fire Foam Coalition and another industry group, FluoroCouncil, formed by the American Chemistry Council.

Krause purchased a PFAS-free alternative, which Sea-Tac crews tested in 2019. After other materials were approved by federal agencies in September 2023, Sea-Tac moved to training on the remaining products and then purchased one of the approved products.

Joey Pierotti, president of the Port of Seattle Firefighters Association, is pleased with the new product. He says it does take a little more effort to put out a fire, but he sees it as a worthy compromise.

“Our original tactic was you would hit (the fire) with this (PFAS-containing) foam and that would basically kill it. Now it’s a little bit longer, but it still does the same job,” he said. “I think it’s a pretty good trade-off for long-term occupational health versus a little bit of extra work.”

2024 The Seattle Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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