The U.S. Government Accountability Office announced that the Department of Defense will cease its use of PFAS-based Aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) by October 2024. Thousands of lawsuits nationwide claim that prolonged exposure to Aqueous-Film Forming Foam causes various types of cancer and other adverse health effects. The foam contains heat-resistant chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). However, several agencies and research have deemed PFAS carcinogenic to humans, prompting the U.S. military to begin phasing out PFAS-based aqueous film-forming foam.
The Military’s Decades-Long Relationship with PFAS
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are human-made chemicals with properties that make them ideal for numerous manufactured goods. Chemicals company DuPont originally introduced non-stick cookware coated in a chemical called Teflon in 1946. Teflon gave way to a number of fluorinated compound chemicals, now found in a variety of consumer products like cookware, cosmetics, food wrappers, and so on.
PFAS consist of very strong carbon-fluorine bonds, making these chemicals extremely resistant to heat. As the name implies, the PFAS within Aqueous Film-Forming Foam create a film on the surface of petroleum. Therefore, PFAS are exceptionally effective in extinguishing high-heat petroleum-based fires since they cut off the fire’s oxygen supply, suppress vapors, and produce a cooling effect.
For these reasons, the Navy contracted the 3M Company to manufacture firefighting foam with PFAS in the 1960s. The Navy required its use for emergencies, training purposes, and equipment testing in 1969, given the advantages of PFAS-based AFFF. From there, Aqueous Film-Forming Foam containing PFAS became standard practice in the military and the firefighting industry.
Rising Concerns Over PFAS Toxicity
By the 1970s, reports had already surfaced that pointed out the toxic traits of PFAS. Scientists noted that PFAS linger for extended periods of time in the environment, garnering PFAS the name “forever chemicals.” 3M scientists learned of PFAS’ ability to bioaccumulate in the human body, and further testing confirmed the cancerous hazards linked to PFAS exposure. However, lawsuits accuse 3M of withholding this information from the military and the public.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the military conducted significant research on the effects of PFAS. These studies painted a concerning portrait of PFAS in AFFF as the military found PFAS to cause cell damage and even death in animals. Finally, in 2011, the Department of Defense acknowledged the dangers of AFFF containing PFAS and pledged to minimize the release of PFAS into the environment while seeking alternatives to PFAS in firefighting foam. In 2015, the DOD added more environmentally responsible AFFF formulas to its list of qualifying fire fighting agents.
Department of Defense Mandated to Phase Out PFAS AFFF by October 2023
While the DOD has identified acceptable chemicals to substitute PFAS in Aqueous Film-Forming Foam, some military branches continue to use the PFAS formulation. Although the Air Force announced that it completed its transition to PFAS-free foam in 2018, the Army and the Navy still employ PFAS-based AFFF. The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act requires the military to phase out all PFAS-containing AFFF by October 1, 2024. Furthermore, the act stipulates that the Department of Defense provide an official military specification for firefighting foam free of any PFAS by October 1, 2023. Even though the Department of Defense has identified six solutions to replace AFFF containing PFAS, it has noted that none of the options entirely meet the codes and requirements put forth by the military.
As the DOD attempts to secure a feasible and viable option to substitute PFAS in AFFF, the department has made efforts to rectify PFAS contamination in communities and the environment. For example, to address PFAS-contaminated drinking water, the DOD has supplied suitable drinking water, shut down wells, and installed treatment systems to remedy the water to some of the many sites impacted by PFAS contamination.