U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is calling on the Trump administration to implement a law to help end the use of PFAS chemicals at commercial airports. The junior senator from New York says it’s time to bring awareness that airports can switch to firefighting foam free of the toxic fluorinated chemicals.
Prior to the law passed a few months ago, Gillibrand says commercial airports were required to use PFAS in firefighting foams.
“One of the biggest reasons why this particular chemical keeps leaking into our water is because it’s one of the main ingredients in the firefighting foam that our airports have been required to use for putting out fires and for their fire safety training exercises,” Gillibrand says. “Up until two months ago, airports in New York and across the country were actually required to use firefighting foam that had PFAS in it because of an arbitrary regulation. There are many new types of firefighting foam on the market now that don’t have PFAS in them.”
President Trump signed the law in October as part of the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization bill, but Gillibrand says the administration is dragging its feet on implementation, and most airports are unaware of the change.
“The Trump administration is just sitting by while our communities continue to have their water contaminated by these chemicals,” Gillibrand says. “There is no excuse for this. The Trump administration needs to act now and tell airports about how they can access safer firefighting materials.”
An FAA spokesperson did not respond in time for this broadcast. Gillibrand is specifically calling on the FAA to immediately make all commercial airports in the U.S. aware of the change in requirements for firefighting foam; prohibit the use of PFAS-containing foam for training purposes; and other actions. Dr. David Andrews is a senior scientist at Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group.
“So I think it’s really important that Gillibrand put out this message and really this immediate call to action. That’s what’s needed,” says Andrews. “We know enough about these chemicals that we need to stop this as soon as possible.”
Andrews has been investigating PFAS chemicals for more than a decade.
“And really the big concern is when these foams are used for training exercises. They’re often sprayed onto a runway or onto a field where they leach into the environment, the groundwater, and they could be there for decades or centuries or longer,” says Andrews. “And that’s what’s really been the main source of contamination across the country.”
In general, he says there is uncertainty as to how toxic replacement chemicals for PFAS are. PFAS is a family of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances that includes PFOS, a chemical that
affected drinking water in Newburgh. In the summer of 2016, New York state designated Stewart Air National Guard base in Newburgh a Superfund site, after finding the source of PFOS contamination was the historic use of firefighting foam at the base. Gillibrand says she is dissatisfied with the pace toward the Department of Defense’s cleanup at Stewart Air National Guard base.
“We just got them $170 million to do the work,” says Gillibrand. “They need to be cleaning it up, and they certainly shouldn’t be using any more PFAS foam.”
Senior officials from the Department of Defense were in Newburgh mid-November holding their first public forum since the PFOS contamination crisis hit more than two years ago. They said there are challenges with Stewart because it is an Air National Guard base and under different authorities than DoD’s active duty bases.
The Environmental Working Group’s Andrews says there are several airports that have left PFAS foams behind.
“We do know that these fluorine-free foams have been used for years in other locations across the country and major airports, London Heathrow Airport,” says Andrews. “They’ve been used in Australia, Denmark. A number of other countries have switched to these less toxic foams.”
In June, New York state sued six manufacturers of hazardous firefighting foam that contained PFOA and/or PFOS. The lawsuit alleges that the foams used at military and civilian airports caused widespread contamination, as in the case of Newburgh. Gillibrand weighs in.
“I agree that manufacturers do have responsibility to pay as well, but I also believe that the administration has a responsibility, too,” says Gillibrand. “It is not acceptable that some communities in America are forced to bathe in or drink tainted water that have carcinogens like PFOS or PFOA in them. It’s unacceptable on every level.”
Meantime, a spokesman says the state Department of Health is looking to finalize a December date for a Drinking Water Quality Council meeting to recommend maximum contaminant levels for PFAS chemicals such as PFOA and PFOS.