During our visit, my dad told me that some people were concerned about the effects of groundwater contamination from chemicals found in firefighting foam. He said it had gotten into some residents' drinking water. It was shocking to learn that the very thing I was trying to raise awareness for was a problem that hit so close to my family. I decided to look into the situation when I got home.
Here's What I Found Out
In October 2016, 150,000 gallons of PFC-laced water was accidentally released into the Colorado Springs sewer system. Since then, according to a June 2018 Denver Post article, 42 municipal water supply wells were contaminated with excess levels of PFC, and had to be shut down. Thirty-seven private wells tested at elevated levels of the same stuff. They are now testing some of the residents to see if they are suffering measurable effects from the toxins they've been exposed to.
Holy Smoke! PFC Struck Home Again!
We came home to this: Hundreds of Fish Dying Off in Lake Elsinore. PFCs from the fire retardant used to contain the Holy Fire may have gotten in the lake and killed the fish here, though the article does mention that fish can die in this way due to overpopulation as well. Groundwater contamination affected my family's environment a thousand miles away, and likely mine as well. But what are PFCs? Are they dangerous? The more I read, the more questions I had:
What are PFCs anyway?
For answers, I first turned to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIH). PFC stands for Perflourinated Chemical, a manufactured compound that can make things resistant to stains, grease, and water. We use PFCs in non-stick pans, stain-resistant furniture, and water-repelling clothing, among other things. PFCs are also found in fast food containers and synthetic firefighting foam.
What effects do PFCs have on us and our environment?
PFCs tend to break down slowly. Some even have breakdown times characterized as 'persistent'. They aren't stored in body fat, binding to protein instead, meaning they are stored in the blood, liver, and kidneys. In animals, they can cause organ damage, disrupt endocrine systems, and cause developmental problems in the womb. Some studies of the effects on humans were inconclusive, though some studies seem to indicate that these chemicals are bad for our health.
Why are PFCs used in fire-fighting foam?
It's faster at putting out certain types of blazes. There are environmentally friendlier options, but those take longer to put out fires.
What is being done?
I am happy to report that people have taken notice of this issue, and action is being taken! The United States Air Force Public Affairs put out a statement in March of 2016. Not only does it describe the sampling to be done at sites that used PFC-containing firefighting foam, but also discusses the commitment to preventing this problem in the future.
The Air Force is taking three preventative measures. First, such foams are limited to emergency responses only. Second, should such foam be used, it is to be contained immediately afterward. And last, the Air Force is finalizing a plan to replace existing inventory with PFOS/PFOA-free alternatives. The alternatives may still contain PFCs, but not the two that the EPA has an advisory against.