Turn Off the Tap: “Forever” Toxics in CA Firefighting Foam

Update, September 30, 2020: Yesterday, Governor Newsom signed California legislation that would phase out toxic “forever” chemicals known as PFAS from firefighting foam used to fight flammable liquid fires. PFAS in firefighting foam is a major source of drinking water contamination in the state and poses a risk to communities near locations where such firefighting foam is used and to the firefighters that use the foam. Safe, effective, and economical alternatives are available and in widespread use. California Professional Firefighters strongly supported the bill. The new law imposes some of the strongest restrictions in the nation. More below.

Update, August 26, 2020: Today, California's SB 1044, which phases out the sale and use of toxic, "forever" PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam used for flammable liquid fires, passed the State Assembly with an overwhelming, bipartisan 72-0 vote!

California is poised to take a big step to phase out one of the largest sources of toxic PFAS (per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances) pollution: firefighting foam used to fight flammable liquid fires. Senator Ben Allen’s SB 1044 just passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee and is now headed to the Assembly floor.

PFAS are a large class of man-made chemicals (including thousands of individual chemicals) used widely in industrial processes and consumer products such as non-stick cookware and food packaging, clothing, carpets, cosmetics—and firefighting foam. Unfortunately, PFAS do not break down (or they break down into other PFAS), spread quickly through the environment and are associated with a long list of harmful health effects, including cancer and developmental and reproductive harm. Unsurprisingly, firefighters face especially high exposures and risks on top of the dangers from fire that they take on as part of their lifesaving job.

PFAS in firefighting foam is also a major contributor to the contamination of drinking water. In California, water sources for water systems serving up to 19 million people have already been found to be contaminated with PFAS. Given that the state still has to conduct tests on many more drinking water sources, the number is likely much higher. PFAS contamination is very hard to contain, and clean up can be expensive. Given the health harms and the difficulty of cleaning up PFAS, it is imperative that we phase out unnecessary uses of these toxic chemicals. PFAS in firefighting foam is one such unnecessary use.

California is already moving to act on several other categories of PFAS use, such as carpets and rugs, textile treatments, and food packaging, and on drinking water standards for PFAS, as are multiple other states. Firefighting foam is a large part of the pollution problem and is an important part of addressing PFAS in the state.

Non-PFAS alternatives are available, effective, and already in widespread use at airports, refineries, industrial sites, and armed forces around the world, and the US military is required to phase out foam containing PFAS by 2024. Several states have already acted to eliminate the sales of PFAS-laden firefighting foam for uses other than oil refineries,  terminals, and chemical plants (Colorado, New Hampshire), and some have moved to phase out sales and distribution of PFAS foam for refineries and chemical plants as well (Washington, New York).

Senator Ben Allen’s SB 1044 would bring these policies to California and build on them to go further. The bill is co-sponsored by NRDC, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, California Professional Firefighters, Clean Water Action, and Environmental Working Group. SB 1044 has passed the Senate with strong, bipartisan support. It is now headed to the Assembly floor and eventually to Governor Newsom’s desk for his signature. The bill does the following:

  • In addition to sales and distribution, it establishes firm end dates for the use of PFAS-laden firefighting foam. This means that stockpiling and continued use is not allowed under the California bill.
    • For municipal fire departments, sales and use must end by January 1, 2022.
    • For fixed fire suppression systems at various facilities that require more time to transition, sales and use must end by January 1, 2024.
    • At oil refineries and terminals, for use on tanks greater than approximately 12 meters diameter and for fuels pooling in contained areas greater than a 500 square meters surface area, sales and use must end by January 1, 2028 unless a waiver is granted to a facility. All other uses must be phased out by January 1, 2022 or January 1, 2024.
      • A waiver is available for specific uses for firefighting in tanks and pooling fuel only if no other facility anywhere has transitioned to a commercially available non-PFAS alternative for that use. Waivers expire by January 1, 2032. The costs of administering the waiver will be paid for by the industry.
  • It phases out sales and use at chemical plants by no later than January 1, 2024. No other state has phased out use at chemical plants by that date.
  • The exemptions for chemical plants and for oil refineries and terminals come with a requirement to ensure that any PFAS used is contained (i.e. not released into the environment) and that any use or release to the environment is reported promptly to the state. The end date for use and the containment and reporting requirements at refineries are particularly important because refineries and terminals are often located in communities already overburdened by pollution and health risks.
  • In addition, the bill requires that any foam that remains in California must be safely transported and stored because current disposal technologies for landfilling or incineration do not ensure that there will be no releases to the environment and that the health of neighboring communities will be protected.
  • Like other states, the bill also bans training uses of PFAS foam and requires notification to purchasers of personal protective equipment for firefighters if PFAS has been used in the equipment, giving firefighters the right to know what is in their gear.

The bill sets a comprehensive and orderly timeline for phasing out all uses of PFAS-laden firefighting foam in California and requires that interim uses are contained to ensure that there are no releases to the environment. It is a critical step in turning off the tap on this toxic “forever” chemical, and a significant public health victory for California. The legislature should pass the bill and the Governor should sign it as soon as possible. We owe it to our firefighters and to communities across California.

About the Authors

Avinash Kar

Senior Attorney and Director, State Health Policy, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program
Blog Post

The estimated number of Californians affected by water contaminated by toxic PFAS chemicals is rising. Data released just last week confirms that California has cause for worry, and underscores that the state should act now to protect its residents. Here we summarize state level solutions needed to address this widespread and growing public health and environmental problem.

Blog Post

Managing the risk of these “forever chemicals” has focused primarily on one chemical—out of thousands—at a time. It doesn’t work, so we must change this system to protect public health.

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