From Joel Thacker’s office window, he can see the Indiana Law Enforcement and Firefighters Memorial — a large limestone pillar dedicated to those Hoosiers who lost their lives in the line of duty.
The names of eight firefighters were added to it last year, the State Fire Marshal said. Six of them were due to cancer.
Heart disease and stroke used to be the leading cause of death among firefighters. But from 2002 to 2019, cancer caused 65% of firefighter line-of-duty deaths, according to the International Association of Firefighters.
Research now shows that one of the tools firefighters use for taming blazes is also a main source of cancer-causing chemicals. PFAS is a huge group of toxic chemicals used in thousands of consumer products — including foams used to extinguish fires.
“We know PFAS is directly linked to four of the eight types of cancer that firefighters are more likely than the general population to be diagnosed with,” Thacker told IndyStar.
Indiana’s answer: A new program to get rid of fire-fighting foam containing PFAS, one of the first such programs in the country.
Minimizing exposure to the foam will have a “big impact on the health” of firefighters across Indiana, the program touts, and allows the state to protect the public and environment.
These toxins now have been found in the water and blood of nearly every American, and are linked to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma as well as kidney, breast, prostate, liver and ovarian cancers. A new scientific review also has found “unequivocal evidence” that firefighters using foams with PFAS have “unacceptably” high levels of the toxic chemicals in their blood.
The state launched a program this year that focuses on protecting the safety of Hoosier firefighters and communities. It will do so by removing and properly disposing of any PFAS material from a fire department that requests it.
“So we were looking at what we can do,” Thacker said, “who can we partner with and how can we do it?”
As the program gets underway, more than one-quarter of the state’s departments have already expressed interest.
“As the fire chief, I’m concerned about the health of my guys and gals in the department,” said Nathan Stoermer, chief of the Greensburg Fire Department. “We’re here to help people, not hurt people. So if we know it’s causing problems, let’s try to fix that.”
Firefighting foam 'big part' of contamination
Hundreds of products that people use everyday are made with the highly toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS: nonstick cookware, water repellent clothing, stain-resistant carpets and furniture as well as food packaging. Also on the list are certain fire-fighting foams.
Called aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF, this foam primarily has been used to put out oil fires such as those from cars or airplanes. It also is regularly used in training exercises for fire departments.
PFAS chemicals build up in people’s bodies and never break down in the environment — earning them the moniker “forever chemicals.” They are contaminating drinking water, waterways, soil and people across the country.
Officials have discovered drinking water with PFAS in communities in Michigan, Colorado, California, North Carolina, Illinois and other states. In Indiana, the state found the harmful chemicals in the treated drinking water at 10 small utilities.
As the number of known communities with contamination continue to grow, more states are trying to figure out what to do.
“Firefighting foam is a big part of this, a big part of the contamination,” said Melanie Benesh, a legislative attorney with the Environmental Working Group, which studies PFAS across the country. “It’s taken 20 years to see the regulatory activity we are seeing on PFAS now.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is soon expected to set limits for how much PFAS are allowed in drinking water. And states are taking steps to limit use of the materials.
In 2020, the Indiana legislature passed a law prohibiting the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS for training. The law also discouraged the use of the foam in actual fire scenarios unless truly necessary.
PFAS has been linked to four types of cancer that firefighters are more often diagnosed with: testicular and prostate cancers, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and mesothelioma.
The state’s new program is just the next step, said Thacker, the Indiana State Fire Marshal.
“There were individuals, elected officials, that had the vision then that this was bad,” he said. “And then we talked about if there was ever funding available, we would like to figure out how to help fire departments dispose of this.”
State picks up the tab
The Indiana Department of Homeland Security partnered with the Department of Environmental Management to bring the program about: “This is not just a health issue, but an environmental one,” Thacker said.
The foam collection initiative is voluntary. The state has set up a survey and is asking all fire service organizations to participate — it is meant to help understand how much AFFF foam is present in Indiana and who wants help with picking it up.
So far, in just a couple months, about 200 of the 800 fire organizations in Indiana have responded. Based on those responses, roughly 50,000 gallons of foam with PFAS already have been identified, according to the state.
It’s still early, and the Fire Marshal’s office is hoping that with more time and awareness, more fire departments will continue to sign up for help.
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To carry out the program, the state is working with a company called US Ecology, which provides environmental services such as treatment, disposal and recycling of hazardous and radioactive waste. For fire departments that are interested, they can work with US Ecology to coordinate a time to pick up the foam, which often is stored in five-gallon jug containers.
The key part of the program: It’s free for fire departments.
This foam can be very expensive to dispose of, Thacker said, to the tune of several thousand dollars, depending on the amount. So for many departments, that means it likely could sit in storage in perpetuity or be disposed of improperly.
“So your options were really limited,” Thacker said. “It will cost a lot of money to get rid of and we know it’s harmful, so let us take care of that for you.”
Gov. Eric Holcomb included PFAS foam disposal in his 2022 agenda, and with that came $1.5 million in the initial funding for the program.
Stoermer in Greensburg said he is thankful for Indiana’s new program. He said his department changed its policies to not use it after the recent law was passed, “so it’s basically just taking up space.”
He said he wants to get it out and doesn’t want to kick the can down the road. “But I don’t have it in my budget to properly dispose of hazardous chemicals,” Stoermer said. “So if the state is going to do that for free and negotiate that for us, that makes a big difference.”
Dwayne Wiggans of the Winchester Fire Department agreed. He first learned about the potential dangers of the PFAS foam when Indiana’s law was passed two years ago.
“This was supposed to be the best stuff and then all of a sudden it’s bad for us,” the Fire Chief said. “If I had to pay $1,000 a bucket, that hurts and I won’t do it, I can’t afford to. So by the state picking up the tab, they know it’s not out there and it’s being disposed of safely.”
Beyond the local fire departments, experts and advocates across the state and country are applauding the program.
“The take-back programs, at the minimum, shift the burden from the local fire departments,” said Benesh with the Environmental Working Group.
While there is a growing trend of these types of programs across the country, Indiana is still an early adopter. Currently, fewer than 10 states are beginning or completing the process of taking back foams, according to Sonya Lunder, a senior toxics policy advisor who tracks these programs for Sierra Club.
Despite Indiana being on the cutting edge, and being recognized for doing so, there are still lingering questions about how to make the program the most effective.
First is what’s provided through the program. Though Indiana’s program offers pick-up of PFAS foams for free, there is no funding to help fire departments replace those foams with alternatives that are free of the toxic chemicals.
There are multiple manufacturers of foam, but not many produce the PFAS-free options. They also are often more expensive. While that is expected to change as more manufacturers and options come online, it likely could be a barrier to some fire departments today — especially in a voluntary program like Indiana’s, Stoermer said.
“That likely is one reason scaring some departments away from wanting to get rid of what they have,” the fire chief said. “We need to do a better job of finding out what the barriers are: Is it because the new stuff is expensive? Is it because people don’t know how the new stuff works?”
The alternatives have been proven to work well. The Indianapolis Fire Department switched to non-toxic replacement more than a decade ago, according to Battalion Chief Rita Reith, because it “simply worked better for our needs.”
The state of Colorado also has tried to address the funding question. It passed a bill in recent years where it taxes oil and gas purchases because much of the contamination came from using PFAS fire foams on oil and gas fires, Lunder said.
“That funded a great effort by our state to buy PFAS-free foams for local fire departments,” she added.
Stoermer said he hopes Indiana’s program can evolve to include more in the future.
“Being a trailblazer in this, maybe we will see more things come forward,” he said. “Not just picking it up is the end — it’s something to celebrate, but more work needs to be done on the back-end.”
There also are questions on how the foam is disposed of to ensure it doesn’t cause further contamination. Some states and organizations, including the U.S. military, have previously incinerated the foam.
Now there are questions, however, on whether burning the foam actually breaks down the chemicals or spreads them into the surrounding communities, said Benesh. Some states are now taking the step of banning incineration of PFAS products within their borders.
Other states are requiring the PFAS foams to be solidified and then landfilled, Lunder with Sierra Club said, “which at least is a bit more secure because you know where it is and can monitor it for leaking.”
That is the method Indiana will be using. US Ecology will treat the PFAS fire foam as a hazardous waste and plans to solidify it before disposing of the toxic substance at the company’s facility in Idaho. The site is designed to securely contain hazardous waste and the arid desert location “ensures zero offsite discharge.”
The material will be transported by a hazardous material hauler and the facility employs all required environmental monitoring, including groundwater monitoring, according to US Ecology spokesman David Crumrine.
“We chose this disposal option as it allows us to end the mobility cycle of PFAS waste through secure containment,” he said.
Still, some advocates and experts say they think the best option is just to hold onto the foam, for now. The EPA is currently researching the best destruction technologies and is planning to put out a paper later this year with the latest information and possible recommendations.
“That’s super exciting and hopefully in the ideal world these pieces fit together,” Lunder said, “and we will have processes that can be used to break down the PFAS chemicals.”
As of Friday, pick-ups have occurred at 39 fire departments across Indiana and more than 5,200 gallons of fire foam have been collected. Most of the collections thus far have been located around central Indiana.
Another 18 pick-ups have been scheduled for the coming week while 123 others are pending getting a date on the books, spanning all four corners of Indiana.
Thacker said he is fielding calls from other states with questions about what Indiana’s program looks like and how it got going so quickly. He said he is happy and excited to share his experience to help others and get the toxic chemicals out of the system.
The existing contract currently is set for two years, though Thacker acknowledges that the effort might take longer to spread awareness and get all fire departments — both volunteer as well as what are called career departments — on board.
He said as the state’s program gets underway and it learns more about what’s actually out there, then his agency can begin conversations about extending the contract and additional funding.
“My hope is we can rid Indiana of all the foam that’s identifiable,” Thacker said, “and that will probably take longer than two years and probably more funding than we currently have.”
Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.
IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indiana launches new program to get rid of toxic firefighting foam