Southfield Fire Chief and State Officials Discuss PFAS in Firefighting Foam


Southfield Fire Chief and State Officials Discuss PFAS in Firefighting Foam

(Cheryl Weiss, Oct. 19, 2018)

Southfield, MI- Fire departments around the state of Michigan have fire suppression foam containing perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS), which, when used or spilled, can contaminate drinking water and affect public health.

On Thursday, October 18, officials including State Fire Marshal Kevin Sehlmeyer; Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) Director Carol Isaacs; Chief of Fire Operations for the Detroit Fire Department Robert Distelrath; and Southfield Fire Department Chief Johnny Menifee met to discuss the issue.

The foam is called Class B AFFF Foam, which contains PFAS, and according to an ongoing survey started this spring, nearly 45 percent of fire departments polled so far in Michigan have reported a total of 32,000 gallons.

This Class B foam has been used since the 1970’s and is highly effective on certain fires, such as gasoline fires.  It is not only used occasionally at fire stations, but at military bases and airports as well.  In fact, airports are required to have Class B foam on site at all times.  However, this foam has the potential to enter the drinking water supply when used or spilled, which makes it a public health concern as well as an environmental hazard.  According to Isaacs, this is a very significant issue.

The State Fire Marshal and MPART Director are making the rounds around the state, discussing the issue and asking all fire departments to complete Class B Foam survey.  Sehlmeyer stated, “We know departments have this foam.  How do we come up with a plan to dispose of that foam properly?”  The goal is two-part: to protect public health and to protect the environment.

Fire departments are asked to only use Class B Foam when absolutely necessary; in emergency lifesaving situations.  It should not be used in training situations.  When it is used, firefighters should make sure to clean it up completely.  Sehlmeyer said “As we clean up after emergencies, we also need to clean up the foam used to fight the fires. That includes using sand to absorb the material, and flushing the hose lines and pumps at the scene.”

Additionally, when cleaning up Class B Foam, firefighters need to protect themselves by wearing protective eyewear, long sleeves, and rubber gloves.  PFAS accumulates in the body and has been linked to serious health concerns including cancer and autoimmune issues.

In Oakland County, Class B Foam is not often used.  According to Menifee, the Southfield Fire Department has used Class B just five times throughout his career there.

In Detroit, Distelrath stated that the Detroit Fire Department has 36 five-gallon containers of Class B Foam. They will store it in a separate room, and they are looking into safe ways to dispose of it, such as incinerating it or solidifying it.

Not all fire fighting foam is Class B. “Just because you see foam, it is not necessarily B AAAF Foam,” Sehlmeyer said.   Class A foam looks the same, but does not have PFAS, and it is more commonly used to fight fires.

In addition, household fire extinguishers do not have Type B foam; they have dry powder with an extinguishing agent.

The current work of the State Fire Marshal and MPART include reaching out to fire departments around the state, testing drinking water, creating infographics, and providing guidance.  According to Isaacs, “We are testing where we think the groundwater may be contaminated by PFAS.  You can’t come up with the solutions until you know the situation you have,” she said.

Menifee said, “We are very confident we are going to resolve this.”

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