The U.S. military is spending billions to clean up drinking water contaminated with toxic firefighting foam while continuing to use dangerous new formulas.
About an hour north of Seattle at the northern edge of Puget Sound, Whidbey Island is quiet, forested, and, in Bob Farnsworth’s neighborhood, idyllic. In the 22 years he’s lived on Whidbey, where he served as a command master chief at the Naval Air Base, Farnsworth, 61, has regularly crabbed and fished for salmon and enjoyed fruit from his own trees. His home, which he recently had appraised for $469,000, is less than a mile down a fir-tree lined road from a sandy beach. Until this summer, Farnsworth, who retired from the Navy in 2007, had been planning to sell it and move to Oklahoma to live near his grandchildren.
After a 30-year career, Farnsworth has an enduring love for the Navy. But last February, he discovered a toxic side to the Navy’s presence in his life: His well, which he had used to water his fruit trees, cook, and fill his children’s and grandchildren’s glasses over the years, tested positive for three chemicals that had apparently seeped in from foam used for firefighting on the base. One chemical, PFOS, was present at 3,800 parts per trillion, more than 54 times a safety standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2016.
Because of the contamination, Farnsworth worried that he wouldn’t be able to sell his house — and decided not to put it on the market. Suddenly, a place that had been a haven felt more like a trap. “We feel like we’re hostage here,” he said recently. The realization that he and his wife had been exposed to the chemicals, which have been linked to prostate cancer and thyroid diseases, cast the struggles they have had over the past years with these very diseases in a new light. “I don’t know what was related,” he said.
After testing their wells, the Navy provided Farnsworth and several of his neighbors whose wells tested positive for PFOS and PFOA with clean water. Spokesperson Lt. Ben Anderson said the Navy plans to continue providing bottled water and ultimately provide a clean water source to all affected families. But many on the island feel the response is an inadequate fix to the contamination that has upended many of their lives and decreased their property values.
“What the Navy is doing makes no sense,” said Steven Swanson, a retired physician living near Farnsworth whose private well contained 440 ppt of PFOA. Swanson, who also has prostate issues, felt that the Navy didn’t share his urgency about cleaning up the chemicals. “They’re just hoping this will die down, and people will get used to living with contaminated water.”
According to a statement issued by Anderson, “Navy officials at NAS Whidbey Island, Navy Region Northwest and Naval Facilities Engineering Command Northwest are fully committed to the timely and successful cleanup of PFAS contamination, and will be involved until all required actions are complete.”
Contamination from the military’s use of firefighting foam, or AFFF, isn’t limited to Whidbey Island. The foam has been used on hundreds of bases around the country since at least the early 1970s to put out emergency blazes and, far more often, to douse fires purposefully set to prepare firefighters for those emergencies. Chemicals in the foam, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have seeped into water in and around those bases. (PFOA and PFOS are just the two best-known examples of the much larger class of PFAS molecules.) Because mounting research links these chemicals with a host of health problems, including kidney, testicular, bladder, and prostate cancer, as well as immune, reproductive, and hormonal dysfunction, the contamination amounts to a “seminal public health challenge,” as Patrick Breysse, director of the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Environmental Health, recently described it.
Yet even as the Army, Navy, and Air Force have begun the slow process of addressing the contamination, which is expected to cost upwards of $2 billion, the Department of Defense isn’t abandoning this line of chemicals. While some of the precise formulations that caused the contamination are off the table, the U.S. military is in the midst of an expensive effort to replace older foam with a newer formulation that contains only slightly tweaked versions of the same problematic compounds.
Though marketed as environmentally responsible, this new foam contains PFAS chemicals based on slightly shorter carbon chains — six, as opposed to eight, atoms. While many of these shorter compounds exit the human body more quickly, they still accumulate in blood and other tissues. And, like the longer compounds that have been the focus of environmental concerns across the country and around the world, these shorter molecules will persist indefinitely in the environment and never break down on their own.
As with PFOS and PFOA, the EPA has evidence that these shorter chain PFAS molecules accumulate in people’s bodies and the environment, posing threats to both. Some of the studies showing the dangers of these persistent chemicals came from the manufacturers themselves, according to documents obtained by The Intercept.
While several other countries have taken a precautionary approach and are using products without PFAS to put out jet fuel fires, the U.S. recently decided to continue investing in this line of persistent contaminants. As of December 15, the Air Force had swapped out the older foam at 173 of 176 installations, according to the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, which provides engineering services to Air Force installations. Three remote sites experienced seasonal shipping delays, but should have their older AFFF replaced by the newer version in the spring, according to Air Force spokesperson Mark Kinkade.
Meanwhile, the Navy “is developing a policy to require the testing, removal, and safe disposal of AFFF installed in firefighting systems (e.g., in an AFFF tank on a firetruck or hangar system) over the next 1-2 years,” according to Anderson, the Navy spokesperson, and will be replacing that foam with “newly qualified foams.” And the Army has planned and programmed funding to replace the current stocks in fiscal year 2019, according to a statement from Army spokesperson Wayne V. Hall.
The Air Force has already spent $10.8 million on replacing and incinerating old AFFF, according to Air Force spokesperson Laura M. McAndrews. The cost of that transition is predicted to reach more than $74 million as the process stretches on until at least 2020, according to a 2015 Air Force PowerPoint presentation. That document, along with many others cited in this article, was obtained through discovery in a lawsuit against the U.S. government over PFAS contamination filed by attorney Mark Cuker, who shared it with The Intercept.
Some of that expense is purchasing what Air Force Fire Chief James Podolske referred to in an August 2016 memo obtained by The Intercept as a “new environmentally responsible six carbon chain formula” of AFFF. The new foam contains no PFOS and “little or no PFOA,” according to an Air Force press release. Instead, it uses the closely related molecules that pose many of the same dangers.
The Navy began requiring its vessels to carry AFFF in 1967 after 134 sailors died in a fire aboard the USS Forrestal. The aircraft carrier had been off the coast of north Vietnam, when a power surge caused a rocket to fire and strike a fuel tank, igniting leaking fuel and causing nine bombs to explode. The fire burned all night and turned into one of the worst disasters in U.S. naval history. (Lt. Cmdr. John McCain, then a pilot of one of the Sky Hawks aboard the Forrestal, jumped from the nose of his plane and ran through the flames to safety.)
AFFF was a new compound then: Navy scientists had been working with Minnesota-based chemical company 3M on developing the foam since the early 1960s; in 1966, the Navy patented the material, which creates a thin layer over the surface of the fuel that smothers the flames and prevents the release of vapor that could otherwise reignite. According to military specifications, the foam required a key ingredient: a “fluorinated surfactant,” a chemical to help make the foam spreadable. 3M was the military’s only supplier until the mid-1990s, when it was joined by several other companies.
PFOS-based foam was widely adopted. Eventually, the Department of Defense used it at all aircraft hangars, airfields, and aircraft fueling stations, among other locations. The Federal Aviation Administration adopted the foam to fight fires at all commercial airports. And militaries and airports around the world also came to use the foam.
But environmental concerns about the foam emerged as early as 1974, when a report from one of the U.S. Navy’s research centers fretted over releasing “a large raft of snow-white AFFF floating” into harbors, as was then the practice. Although the precise dangers posed by the foam were unclear — and 3M had assured the Navy that the foam would have no adverse affect on the environment, according to the report — the authors noted that “practically anything undrinkable by humans is unfit to discharge over the side into the sea” and suggested using instead foam made of glycerin and water. Two years later, a 1976 memo about AFFF from another Navy research lab noted that “improvements are desired in the environmental area.” Navy scientists proposed changes to Navy practice, including testing for toxicity. The Navy did not take up all of the suggestions.
Already thousands of gallons of foam were being dumped into the harbors in San Diego and Norfolk, Virginia. A 1978 report by the Naval Ship Research and Development Center authorized the continued release of the foam into the harbors, predicting it would “not be environmentally significant.” It took nearly 20 years, until 1996, for the concerns to revive substantially and even then, no one yet grasped that tiny amounts of the chemicals from the foam could affect people’s immune systems and change their risks for cancer and other diseases. Rather, according to a memo to the Naval Facilities Engineering Service Center, there was a lack of data showing the fluorinated molecules in the foam were biologically safe.
Though they were still vague, the mounting concerns about the environmental effects of AFFF presented naval commanders with an ethical dilemma. Whatever unspecified health and environmental problems the foam might cause down the line, it was already saving lives by preventing catastrophic shipboard fires.
In 2000, the environmental worries suddenly became less abstract — and more public. After decades of providing the firefighting foam to the military, 3M, the Navy’s partner in creating AFFF, announced it would stop making PFOS, the company’s patented surfactant, and, ultimately, the foam.
At an August 2000, meeting at the Pentagon, an EPA staffer who worked on chemical risk explained the research that had led 3M to decide to take its products off the market. She described one study, conducted by both 3M and DuPont, which by that point was making a similar product. In the experiment, monkeys exposed to PFOS had lost weight, developed enlarged livers, and, in some cases, died within three weeks. Because some of the monkeys given the lowest dose of the chemical had died, the researchers were unable to find any safe level of exposure. Citing other research as well, she warned that the continued release of PFOS would pose a “serious concern for potential future risk for humans and wildlife.”
According to an attorney representing the company, “3M generally believes that these chemicals present no harm to the environment or human health at levels they are typically found in the environment. Certainly, 3M sold its AFFF products with instructions regarding their safe use and disposal.”
While 3M’s decision meant that its AFFF made with PFOS would no longer be available, the military continued using formulations of the foam that contained other PFAS surfactants. But less than a year after her first presentation, the EPA staffer spoke again at the Pentagon, where she reiterated the EPA’s concerns about PFOS and took her warnings a step further: The EPA wasn’t just concerned about PFOS, she explained, going on to advise the military brass not to rely on any of this class of chemicals, and recommend a “program to seek, test, and consider long-range alternatives.” In the meantime, the EPA would be studying the risks.
The EPA’s interest in their products presented a choice for the chemical and foam makers: They could, like 3M, stop making the surfactants used in AFFF. Or they could ignore the warnings and stay in a market that, with 3M’s departure, had just gotten considerably more lucrative.
Shortly after the Pentagon meeting raised the possibility that the EPA would scrutinize these other chemicals, the foam and surfactant manufacturers made their decision clear: Not only would they continue to make AFFF and the fluorinated surfactants, they would also create an organization to defend these products. The Fire Fighting Foam Coalition — with DuPont and the chemical company Dynax among its founding members — was soon making presentations to the EPA and various branches of the military. Their messages were reassuring: The chemicals used to replace PFOS were safe for human health and the environment, and AFFF was the only way to safely protect military personnel from fires.
The Fire Fighting Foam Coalition was headed by lobbyist Tom Cortina. Cortina was an old hand at defending chemicals from the EPA, but his newest clients were facing especially daunting troubles.
By 2000, some within the Department of Defense had raised the possibility of replacing AFFF with a foam that didn’t contain chemicals that would persist in humans or the environment. The next year, the country’s most prominent air safety organization, the National Fire Protection Association, held a meeting to discuss the need to abandon AFFF. And in 2002, a consulting company called Hughes Associates gave a presentation to a Federal Aviation Conference that warned that the fluorinated surfactants in AFFF were among the most environmentally persistent substances ever — “impervious to biological and most chemical assault.”
As concerns began to swirl around their products, Cortina, joined by DuPont’s Steven Korzeniowski, pushed back. At conferences, in journals, and in meetings with the military and the EPA, they repeated a key talking point: Only one PFAS chemical, PFOS, had been taken off the market; since their products didn’t contain PFOS, their products were safe.
One of the coalition’s biggest tests came at an October 2003 meeting that was part of the EPA’s investigation of perfluorinated chemicals. The agency was considering whether telomers used in AFFF, as well as the foam itself, should be part of that regulatory investigation. Had the agency concluded that the other surfactants in AFFF posed a significant threat, that step could have led fairly quickly to restrictions — or at least to a voluntary phase-out of the chemicals — as it eventually did with PFOA and PFOS.
But at the meeting, the Fire Fighting Foam Coalition asked the EPA to exempt it from the regulatory process. “The Fire Fighting Foam Coalition strenuously argued that these newer chemicals were safe … and EPA basically bought that,” Rob Bilott, an attorney who was at the meeting, recalled recently. “It was so slick.”
Whatever drove the decision not to include AFFF in its regulatory process, Cortina was clearly pleased about it. “I consider this to be a major victory of the FFFC and the telomer-based AFFF industry,” he wrote in a memo to coalition members that Korzeniowski circulated to his colleagues at DuPont.
It was a major victory. Since then, the Army, Navy, and Air Force have continued to use AFFF across the country and abroad with little involvement from the EPA or pressure to replace its products. Evidence did eventually emerge that the other PFAS surfactants posed some of the very same problems that PFOA did. “Over the years, you see this recognition even in Fire Fighting Coalition newsletters,” said Bilott. “But they never went back and said to EPA, ‘Well maybe you better come back and look at us again.’”
According to Cortina, the Fire Fighting Foam Coalition did submit data about AFFF use to the EPA, which subsequently phased out the eight-carbon chemicals that had been used in the foam. Korzeniowski said that DuPont and the industry group participated in the EPA process and met with the agency to discuss the chemicals in foam. “EPA held many meetings with industry representatives to help them better understand the various chemistries out in the marketplace once 3M stopped long-chain manufacture of PFOA and PFOS in 2002,” Korzeniowski wrote in an email to The Intercept.
In response to questions about the current state of cleanup efforts, the Department of Defense referred The Intercept to the individual service branches. The Army, Navy, and Air Force each provided lists of installations without detailing the number of contaminated sites at each installation, greatly limiting the usefulness of the information.
No one knows how many people are drinking PFAS chemicals as a result of that contamination, in part because some of the investigations of military installations where AFFF was used are still underway. According to the lists provided by the Army, Navy, and Air Force, both PFOS and PFOA have been detected in the drinking water on or near at least 46 military installations in concentrations above the EPA’s lifetime health advisory limit, which is 70 ppt.
Many more people are exposed to the chemicals at levels below that 70 ppt threshold. And, judging from the health-based levels that states have set since the EPA set its level last year, even these lower levels may pose health threats. New Jersey is moving forward with setting 14 ppt as its drinking water standard for PFOA, just one-fifth of the EPA’s number, and recommended 13 ppt for PFOS. Vermont and Minnesota have either set or proposed safety levels for both chemicals that are lower than the EPA’s. And in December, a Michigan state legislator proposed the lowest standard yet for PFAS molecules: 5 ppt. Historically, chemical safety thresholds tend to drop over time as research mounts.
The wide range of safety levels worries Aaron Weed, the town supervisor of Oscoda, Michigan. Although the fact that PFOA and related PFAS chemicals from AFFF used at Wurtsmith Air Force Base had leached into local water was first made public in 2003, Weed first learned about it in 2012. Air Force officials presented news of the contamination “as not that big of a deal,” said Weed. “That was the impression I got, that it was nothing to worry about.”
But soon it became clear that the Air Force had different ideas than Weed about what was worrisome. Last year, after he learned about New Jersey’s proposed safety levels, he brought his concerns to a meeting of the cleanup team for Wurtsmith Base, where Air Force officials were discussing a plume of groundwater that contained 50 ppt PFOA.
“They were talking about 50 ppt as if it wasn’t even there,” said Weed. “So I said: ‘Why are you talking about 50 ppt like it’s almost nothing, when New Jersey says 14 ppt is something?’” A few days later, Weed said he received an email from an Air Force official explaining that he was no longer welcome at cleanup team meetings.
According to spokesperson Mark Kinkade, the Air Force is working closely with the community living near Wurtsmith base and recently established a restoration advisory board “to ensure the community has access to information about our efforts at the installation.” Weed was designated an alternate member of that board.
The other question now dogging those living with contamination from AFFF is how many different chemicals pose dangers. The EPA has set groundwater and drinking water health advisory levels for only two compounds: PFOS and PFOA, the eight-carbon molecules that have been used in nonstick products, as well as fire fighting foam.
The military’s policy of addressing only these two chemicals flows from the EPA’s decision to limit its own actions to PFOS and PFOA. Yet clearly other compounds in AFFF also pose threats. After testing on Whidbey Island had turned up six PFAS chemicals in the water there, Navy personnel arrived at Farnsworth’s house to present and explain the results of the tests on his well. “They told me the only ones I had to worry about was PFOS and PFOA,” Farnsworth said recently. Meanwhile, Swanson, the retired physician, had several of the suspected toxic chemical in recent blood tests, yet he says the Navy never spoke to him about the presence of these other chemicals — or how to get rid of them. “They don’t want to admit that any of these are bad chemicals,” said Swanson.
The military is applying that same approach to remediation as well. Although multiple chemicals are known to have tainted the water at Whidbey and other military installations, the military is only attempting to clean up PFOA and PFOS. “The only ones we have an active response requirement for is those two,” as Maureen Sullivan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Environmental Safety and Occupational Health, explained to me in a June interview.
The exclusive focus on PFOA and PFOS means that some people who have the broader category of chemicals at considerable levels in their drinking water do not receive clean water from the military. Recognizing that PFOA and PFOS may well have a cumulative effect, the EPA set not just a safety level of 70 ppt for each chemical, but the same cutoff for both combined.
Neal Sims, who lives in the quaint town of Coupeville on Whidbey Island, didn’t receive clean water from the Navy even after tests of his tap water showed he had four PFAS compounds in his water totaling more than 80 ppt. That’s because when it came to the only two recognized dangers, Sim’s water had less than 30 ppt — well under the EPA’s 70 ppt cutoff. But the tests showed that, when the levels of PFHxS, PFHpA, and PFBS were included, “the total was over 74.”
Richard Abraham, an environmental consultant who lives about 20 minutes south of Sims on Whidbey, was also worried about the other PFAS chemicals found in the Coupeville town well, which provides Sims’s water and also serves the local school and hospital. He asked the hospital to install a filter that removes the chemicals.
The hospital denied his request and in an article in the Whidbey News-Times, a hospital board member referred to Abraham as “alarmist” and blamed him for “causing unnecessary chaos.” The mayor of Coupeville told the paper there was no reason to filter the water and said that the chemicals found in the town’s water “do not rise to a level of concern based upon EPA requirements.” In January, the Navy announced its intention to set up a filtration system for the town of Coupeville, according to Navy spokesperson Mike Welding.
But Abraham and Sims were right to be concerned. Regulators in Europe have already taken action on PFHxS. Minnesota set water levels for PFBS and PFBA back in 2011. And a group of scientists cited health and environmental concerns when they recommended limiting use of the entire class of PFAS chemicals, which likely comprises hundreds of different compounds, in 2015. The state of Washington is working on establishing a lifetime health advisory limit for PFAS compounds. According to Navy spokesperson Ben Anderson, “The Navy will promptly respond as appropriate if such limits are established for those chemicals.”
Some at the Navy seem to have anticipated the confusion that would result from singling out two chemicals for response while many other similar, potentially hazardous compounds are clearly also present. A draft version of a March 2016 document on the Navy’s comprehensive strategy around contamination from the perfluorinated compounds in AFFF obtained by The Intercept revealed an interest in limiting the public’s knowledge of the range of contaminants in their water.
“Do we want to mention somewhere in this strategy that our sampling focus will only be on PFOA/PFOS?” Lindsay Nehm, chief of Naval Operations Energy and Environmental Readiness Division, asked in a comment on the document. Nehm went on: “I think this is crucial to ensure that we don’t open the door for sampling to be done of the full suite of PFCs.”
No one knows the exact number of dangerous chemicals that escaped from the foam and made their way into drinking water and people’s bodies, but it is clearly not two. Nor is it three, the number of PFAS chemicals the Navy tested for in some drinking water wells on Whidbey in the first half of 2017, or six, the number the EPA has tested for in drinking water nationwide, or even 14, the number of PFAS chemicals the Navy tested for on the island starting in September 2017.
An analysis of water where the foam was used, which was published last January in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, found 57 classes of PFAS molecules, each of which could contain many individual chemicals. Chris Higgins, a professor of environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines and one of the study’s authors, estimated that between 500 and 700 PFAS compounds have been found at sites where the foam has been used, though Higgins put the number of PFAS that are “major components” of the foam much lower, at between 30 and 50.
It is impossible to find and remove all of these chemicals, many of which have only recently been identified. “The manufacturers themselves probably didn’t know exactly what was in them,” said Higgins. In most cases, their dangers to humans also remain mysterious. While some of these compounds may be less toxic than PFOS and PFOA, according to Higgins, “some could be more toxic.”
Further complicating matters is that many of the shorter chain molecules for which the EPA has yet to set drinking water standards — and the military has yet to directly address — appear to be more difficult and more expensive to filter out of water than PFOA or PFOS.
Susan Gordon discovered this the hard way. Until 2016, Gordon spent much of her time on the Venetucci Farm in Colorado Springs growing fruit and vegetables and teaching children about the importance of respecting nature. But testing done in June 2016 by the health department revealed that five PFAS chemicals — PFBS, PFHpA, PFHxS, PFOS, PFOA — had made their way from Peterson Air Force Base into the wells serving the farm and Gordon’s home, which is also on the property.
Although most people have low levels of some PFAS chemicals in their blood, tests revealed that Gordon had five of them, including PFOA and PFOS, at about 10 times the national average, and PFHxS at more than 100 times the national average.
Air Force representatives began dropping off big, plastic containers of water as soon as Gordon’s well tested positive for the chemicals and proposed installing special carbon filters on her wells. Gordon hesitated because the Air Force only offered to pay for the installation of the filter and made it clear that she would have to assume the costs of maintaining it.
“They couldn’t tell me what kind of costs or how often the filter would need to be changed,” Gordon said recently. But Air Force representatives told her they would eventually stop providing bottled water. “And they said, ‘If you don’t sign on now, you’re going to lose this opportunity.’” So Gordon signed up for a filter that was intended to bring the levels of only PFOS and PFOA in Gordon’s water below the EPA’s limit, despite the fact that “the PFHxS is what’s highest in everything that’s tested, including my blood.”
In response to inquiries about the Gordon’s situation, Kinkade the Air Force spokesperson, wrote in an email that “there currently is no advisory or properly promulgated national standard for the other compounds” in her water besides PFOS and PFOA. “Whenever we have found drinking water with PFOS/PFOA levels above the health advisory, the Air Force has moved quickly to provide alternate drinking water supplies.”
Recent research confirms that PFHxS, along with some other shorter chain PFAS molecules, are much harder to remove from water than PFOS and PFOA, and break through filters more quickly. Air Force officials had told Gordon it would be between six months and a year before she needed to replace the filters. Less than four months after they were installed, the PFHxS reappeared in her drinking water. At that rate, Gordon estimates her annual cost for the filters to be more than $4,500 a year. “That’s huge for a nonprofit farm,” said Gordon. “We can’t do that!”
For years, the military has argued that the risks and contamination of using PFAS chemicals were necessary because of their lifesaving value. And though it’s true that in the early years, the AFFF foam might have offered a clear advantage over other options, that’s no longer the case.
The day after 3M announced its decision to pull PFOS off the market in 2000, it deployed a chemist named Ted Schaefer to come up with another way to extinguish fuel fires that didn’t contain PFOS or other environmentally persistent ingredients.
Schaefer, who worked for the Australian division of 3M, had spent much of his career on foams used to put out forest fires. After many months of tinkering with raw materials and testing more than 300 formulations, Schaefer came up with a mix of biodegradable organic surfactants and complex sugars that performed comparably to AFFF. The fluorine-free foam, as it was called, smothered flames in tiny bubbles as opposed to a thin film as AFFF did, but it seemed to put out the burning fuel just as well.
In 2002, the fluorine-free foam matched the time it took for one of 3M’s formulations to put out the flames on a pan of jet fuel in tests carried out on a Royal Air Force Base in Manston, England. Both took 46 seconds — and the fluorine-free version outdid another 3M product, which took 50 seconds to extinguish the fire. All three foams met the 60-second standard for putting out jet fuel fires set by the International Civil Aviation Organization.
“We were ecstatic,” said Schaefer, who made several improvements to the fluorine-free foam before patenting it in 2003. “We thought it would change the world.”
The U.S. Navy invited 3M to send a sample and, in 2004, Schaefer traveled to the Navy’s facility in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, for the testing. But the Navy required that foams be able to put out fires within 30 seconds. Neither the fluorine-free foam nor all of the PFAS-containing foams met the 30-second standard. At its fastest, the fluorine-free foam put out the fire in 39 seconds. For the PFAS foams, the times ranged between 25 and 36 seconds.
Schaefer had reason to believe that with practice, firefighters could apply the new product more quickly. With each of several tests of the fluorine-free foam, which is somewhat more viscous than AFFF and thus, applied slightly differently, the time to put out the flames decreased. “The firefighter related that he was confident he could get even better results,” Schaefer recalled. But even though the products were close in performance — and Schaefer’s foam had the added benefit of not containing chemicals that were already contaminating drinking water around the world — the Navy made no effort to work further on the fluorine-free foam, according to Schaefer.
“That performance gap could have been closed with effort,” he said. “But I didn’t hear ‘Let’s try to close that gap.’” Instead, the Navy noted the test as a failure and didn’t pursue it further for years. For its part, 3M turned back to researching fluorinated options and, within a few years, shut down its firefighting foam division entirely.
A Navy spokesperson said that the U.S. Department of the Navy “is aware of Mr. Schaeffer’s efforts in the past to produce a fluorine-free AFFF that would meet the MILSPEC requirements. While the DoN remains hopeful that a fluorine-free AFFF will be developed that meets or exceeds our minimum MILSPEC performance requirements, to date none has been brought to our attention. DoN continues to invest and conduct research and development to identify or develop a fluorine-free AFFF that falls within MILSPEC performance requirements.”
Between 2000 and 2004, Schaeffer also had several meetings with the Australian Defense Force, which uses AFFF based on the U.S. military specification. Schaeffer explained his concerns about fluorinated chemicals and described the potential of his new foam to avoid further contamination. But the meetings didn’t go well. “I felt their eyes glaze over,” he said recently. In response to a list of questions from The Intercept, an Australian defense spokesperson said that as a result of an internal report on general environmental issues associated with the use of AFFF, “from 2004 Defence commenced transitioning away from the 3M AFFF products.”
In 2007, a Norwegian company called Solberg bought the patent rights to the fluorine-free foam products from 3M and hired Schaefer to work on them. Like Schaefer, Jan Solberg, the company’s founder, believed the new foam was “the solution” to the massive contamination problems from AFFF that were already being discovered at crash sites, airports, and military bases around the world, as he told me recently.
Solberg also expected that militaries would soon adopt the fluorine-free foam. “I thought we would sell to the military,” said Solberg. “We saw that the U.S. market would be a big potential.”
But the company ran into significant opposition from the makers of AFFF. “The pressure on Solberg has been tremendous,” said Solberg, who retired in 2010 and sold the company in 2011. “We have been attacked by the foam manufacturers and the fluorosurfactant manufacturers, DuPont and Dynax.” Solberg complained that AFFF manufacturers “hired lobbyists to say this foam has never performed on any live fires, which wasn’t true.”
According to Tom Cortina of the Fire Fighting Coalition, the military didn’t adopt the alternative foam because it was inferior to AFFF. “As for fluorine-free foam, it is well known and objective testing has shown that it is significantly less effective than AFFF for extinguishing flammable liquid fires,” Cortina wrote in an email to The Intercept. “Fluorine-free foams are currently unable to meet the requirements of the US military specification.” Dynax did not respond to inquiries for this article.
But nine firefighting professionals interviewed for this story described similar dynamics within the firefighting foam industry, with manufacturers and sellers of AFFF fiercely defending their market by discrediting alternative foams. Even before the U.S. Navy was testing the Solberg foam, the Fire Fighting Foam Coalition attacked the notion that anything could compete with AFFF.
“Aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) are the most effective agents currently available to fight hydrocarbon fuel fires in military, industrial, and municipal settings,” a newsletter from the industry pronounced in 2005. “This is not an opinion, but a statement of fact that is not disputed by any respected fire protection professional.”
Yet some fire professionals did disagree. In 2002, an international group of more than 100 firefighting experts held the first of five meetings about the foam and the trail of contamination it was leaving around the world. “We laid out a lot of the environmental problems very clearly,” said Roger Klein, a British chemist and firefighting foam expert who helped organize the meetings “and those who laid them out were shouted down by the industry.”
A bitter rift soon developed among fire experts over whether the fluorinated chemicals were worth the environmental and health risks they posed. On one side were Klein, environmental scientists, the makers of fluorine-free foams, and some firefighters, who raised concerns that the chemicals in firefighting foam were both polluting the planet and putting them at particular risk. On the other were the makers of AFFF. Though they represented a narrower slice of the firefighting world, their voices were amplified by a well-funded industry group.
After 2006, when the EPA reached an agreement with chemical manufacturers to phase out the eight-carbon molecules PFOA and PFOS by 2015, the Fire Fighting Foam Coalition began to emphasize the safety of the six-carbon PFAS it would be using to replace them. The replacement chemicals were “not currently being considered for regulation by environmental authorities in the U.S., Europe, or Canada and are expected to be available to serve critical fire protection and life safety applications for the foreseeable future,” as the FFFC’s newsletter announced in 2007.
The industry group was right: The EPA was nowhere near regulating the six-chain molecules. But, as some within the Navy suspected, the lack of regulation didn’t mean the replacement PFAS were necessarily safe. Ronald Sheinson, a chemist at the Naval Research Laboratory, drew his colleagues’ attention to the potential dangers in a 2007 email. “Although they are likely primarily C6 products,” he wrote, “they still have some as yet not completely quantitated hazard properties.”
Sheinson expressed support for investigating alternatives to AFFF and proposed that the military could reserve AFFF for emergencies and use foam that didn’t have persistent toxic chemicals in it for all the other uses.
But without EPA pressure, there was little reason for the military to pursue it. Just after the EPA announced it would not be looking at the PFAS in firefighting foam, Doug Barylski, who worked in the Naval Sea Systems Command, noted in an email to some of his colleagues that his team had “submitted issue papers to look at AFFF alternatives considering it prudent to do some early work.” However, “without any crisis the papers have not been funded.”
Instead, military brass took at least some of their cues from people who had a vested interest in keeping PFAS in wide use. In 2008, after several people within and outside the military expressed concerns about contamination from AFFF, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Wayne Arny passed on assurances about the safety of the new foam that he had gotten from its manufacturers.
“Over the past several months, my staff has met with a number of chemical industry representatives,” Arny wrote in a 2008 memo to the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the assistant secretaries of the Air Force, Navy, and Army. “These representatives have assured us that suitable substitutes are being developed.” Arny explained that the Department of Defense wouldn’t be developing risk-management options “since industry is taking appropriate actions.”
Based on those assurances, the U.S. military has set out on the massive effort that is still underway: replacing AFFF with foam that contains slightly tweaked versions of those same chemicals.
The lobbying continues both nationwide and worldwide. According to slides that Korzeniowski, who’s now a private consultant, presented to the Department of Defense’s Materials of Emerging Regulatory Interest Team in July 2016, the “primary engagement points” for the Fire Fighting Foam Coalition and its international counterpart, the FluoroCouncil, include the Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration, the EPA, the European Chemicals Agency, and Navsea, the division of the Navy that oversees the composition of AFFF.
In May 2017, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt met with executives from Chemours, which has taken over DuPont’s considerable fluorosurfactant business. In the negotiations over phasing out PFOA, DuPont asked for “timely review and approvals” of its replacements for that chemical. Chemours continues to sell those replacement chemicals for use in firefighting foam. And one of the items on the agenda of the May meeting held at EPA headquarters was the company’s desire to “protect significant new U.S. investments the company has made in reliance on previous EPA policy decisions.”
Chemours did not respond to a request for comment.
While the dangers of PFAS compounds have become increasingly obvious, many groups and individuals, including the Federal Aviation Administration, the General Accounting Office, at least one member of Congress, and a representative of the Australian military, have asked the Department of Defense about the possibility of switching to fluorine-free foam, often referring specifically to Solberg’s products.
The responses to these inquiries included the circular argument that fluorine-free foams can’t meet the military’s foam specification because the standard requires fluorinated surfactants, which fluorine-free foams purposefully exclude.
Bradley Williams of the Naval Research Laboratory issued a typical explanation in a 2013 letter to Michael Healy, a senior defense force officer in the Australian military. Outrage in Australia has spread over AFFF contamination of more than 100 sites around the country. In his response, Williams explained that the military’s specification “explicitly states that AFFF must contain fluorosurfactants,” going on to note that, in testing done in 2010, Solberg’s fluorine-free foam fell short of the performance standards, coming in at 5 seconds over the 30-second limit for putting out a gasoline fire.
Signed in the midst of growing outrage about foam contamination, the National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress in November included not just $72 million for the Air Force and Navy to clean up PFOA and PFOS and $7 million for a nationwide study of the health effects of PFAS chemicals, but also a requirement that the military look into foam alternatives.
The law, however, made no mention of the replacements for PFOS and PFOA that are already known to pose dangers to health and the environment. And the military’s specification still requires that the firefighting foam “shall consist of fluorocarbon surfactants.” So by the standards of the law passed a few months ago, an “alternative” foam could contain a PFAS molecule other than PFOS and PFOA, as the replacement foam chosen by the Air Force does.
Still, while the U.S. military has been trading dangerous old compounds for dangerous new ones, others around the world have been making a different shift. Kim Olsen, who directs the fire training academy at Copenhagen Airport, oversaw his airport’s transition to fluorine-free foam in 2009. Olsen, who has worked in aviation for more than 40 years, helped conduct more than 20 tests comparing the toxic foam with foams that don’t contain the fluorinated surfactants. “The testing I’ve done clearly shows there’s no difference,” said Olsen. “They both work.”
Other governments and organizations have come to the same conclusion. On January 30, South Australia became the first state in that country to ban firefighting foams containing all PFAS chemicals — not just PFOS and PFOA. The Norwegian and Danish air forces now use fluorine-free foam, as does the oil and gas sector in the North Sea; countless firefighting brigades around the world; as well as 47 corporations, including 3M, Exxon Mobil, Statoil, and ConocoPhillips; and at least 77 airports, according to a list provided by an Australian firefighting official.
Graeme Day, the fire service compliance manager at Heathrow Airport in the U.K., has no regrets about the switch. Because Day was aware of the bitter battle over foam among fire experts, he conducted extensive public testing of the two types before Heathrow switched to fluorine-free foam in 2012. Day carefully documented the tests and even made sure that they were independently witnessed by representatives of the civil aviation authority.
The chemical vendors had warned Day beforehand that the new foam “would not work and protect passengers and firefighters well enough,” he said. But Day has felt only relief about the decision in the past five years — particularly after a British Airways airbus developed engine problems and caught fire in 2015. The firefighters had used fluorine-free foam to quickly put out the flames. Most importantly, no one was hurt. And for Day, there was an added plus: “zero cleanup costs and zero environmental concerns.”
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
In this series, Sharon Lerner exposes DuPont’s multi-decade cover-up of the severe harms to health associated with a chemical known as PFOA, or C8, and associated compounds such as PFOS and GenX.