Toxic incidents: The real world impact of PFAS-containing foam


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Vicki Quint from the Foam Exposure Committee highlights the impacts of PFAS-containing foam from two incidents in Illinois

Laws and regulations are being enacted worldwide on aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF).

USEPA voluntary stewardship PFAS programs have not proven effective for protecting firefighters or public health.

Individual states are taking initiative.

As firefighters and citizens are becoming more aware, the change to F3 foams is occurring.

Fire chiefs should be aware of the PFAS issues that will be created in their communities if AFFF is used.

Morris Illinois lithium battery warehouse

In June 2021, a major fire erupted at a lithium battery warehouse in Morris, Illinois.

Despite officials and first responders initially being unaware, the building contained 180,000 pounds of lithium-ion batteries, contrary to the belief that it had been unoccupied for 35 years.

The old paper mill warehouse’s cause of fire remained unidentified.

Chief Steffes stated that early firefighting efforts with water led to significant explosions.

Within a short time, a company employee alerted first responders about the lithium batteries inside.

The Morris Fire Department, having never tackled a lithium battery fire previously, ordered the evacuation of roughly 4,000 out of the town’s 13,000 residents due to toxic fumes, smoke, and the risk of explosions.

One of the dangerous byproducts of the burning lithium is fluorine gas.

According to a USEPA report, on 30 June, around 2pm, the fire department accessed a fire by removing a building wall, uncovering a 30-by 40-foot area of burning batteries.

They attempted to put out the fire using Purple K at 3:30pm, but it was ineffective.

By 6pm., they began applying Portland cement to the battery area and other hot spots.

By 11pm, cement application was complete with no further smoke observed from the batteries.

The Morris Fire Department led the response, with guidance from the US EPA, while the Illinois EPA monitored water runoff.

Chief Steffes remarked that 1,000 pounds of Purple K barely impacted the fire, but 28 tons of dry Portland cement ultimately smothered the burning lithium-ion batteries, extinguishing the active fires.

OSHA and EPA have both clarified that the article exemption does not apply to lithium-ion batteries which are subject to OSHA HazCom regulations.

Some believe: “The cause of the fire—and what was inside—has potentially profound ramifications for our clean energy future.”

This fire occurred less than one month after the Chemtool industrial fire in Rockton, Illinois.

 According to a news source: “Special resources still in the area from that fire are now being utilised in Morris.” But, those resources obviously did not include using the same firefighting foams from the Chemtool incident.

An attorney involved in the case later made the statement that sand should have been used at the incident instead of cement.

However, a retired fire chief of the Foam Exposure Committee responded by noting that the attorney: “Should better focus on his own profession.”

It appears the incident commander made the proper decision based on his experience and best knowledge.

Sugar Camp Coal Mine

A significant fire broke out at Sugar Camp Coal Mine in Southern Illinois, where Foresight Energy utilised PFAS-laden foams.

This happened just two months after regulators instructed a Louisiana-based contractor to employ safer firefighting foams at another site, the Chemtool facility.

Foresight Energy dispensed 46,415 gallons of PFAS foam concentrate into their mines.

One of the company’s lawyers assured state officials that the foam was biodegradable and wouldn’t harm aquatic life.

However, subsequent inspections pointed to potential contamination risks for nearby private wells and drinking water sources.

A comprehensive report revealed that the total firefighting foam used was 50,390 gallons.

According to a local fire chief, no municipal or district fire departments were involved in the coal mine fire.

The private fire and responses remained secret until a local environmental activist’s photographs showed that foam had drifted to above-ground ditches and farm fields near the mine entrance.

E-mails from 1 September showed that Illinois EPA did not begin looking into potential harm to people and wildlife until three weeks after the mine was evacuated.

According to Illinois EPA, they: “Received an incident report from the National Response Center on September 1, 2021, that firefighting foam possibly containing PFAS was seen in surface water in an unnamed creek near the mine.”

WMIX94 radio reported: “Records show that company officials also hired contractors to drill boreholes illegally into the mine without a permit.

One of those boreholes is close to a creek that was found this month to have high levels of PFAS.”

A 2016 National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit that authorised Sugar Camp to discharge wastewater at the mining facility did not authorise the discharge of PFAS.

Efforts were unsuccessful in extinguishing the fire which continued for months.

In January 2022, portions of the mine were still smouldering.

During January 2022, Illinois Attorney General Raoul filed a lawsuit because of the firefighting foams used: “Including at least 660 gallons of concentrated PFAS-based foam, deep into the underground coal mine.”

Further, according to Attorney General Raoul: “Sugar Camp jeopardised public safety and irresponsibly violated both state environmental and the constraints of its permit by misusing dangerous ‘forever chemicals.’”

At this time, the Illinois Attorney General has filed lawsuits in all three cases: Chemtool fire in Rockton, Lithium Battery Warehouse fire in Morris and Sugar Camp coal mine fire in Southern Illinois.

Foam Exposure Committee observations

All AFFF products contain PFAS.

Despite growing concerns, AFFF is still actively being sold by distributors.

There are existing stocks of PFAS foams on hand at various establishments including fire departments, airports, and industrial operations.

Notably, state governments are showing a quicker response to the AFFF and PFAS issue than the federal government.

This rapid state action is probably because, as there are delays in transitioning to F3 foams, there’s an increased involvement from other parties, such as state legislators and legal entities.

For 70 years, the fire service remained unaware of the toxic nature of PFAS in AFFF, putting Incident Commanders at a disadvantage during emergency decision-making.

AFFF utilised in an emergency incident will create another emergency incident.

Awareness of PFAS in foams must be based upon more than just marketing materials.

Fire departments cannot make a successful transition to F3 foams without correct information.

This article was originally published in the October 2023 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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