SACRAMENTO, Calif. – On Sunday, the California legislature approved a measure to address the growing contamination crisis of toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS. The bill would ban the chemicals in PFAS-based firefighting foams, like aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF – one of the most significant sources of PFAS water contamination. The bill now goes to Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has until the end of September to act on it.
Senate Bill 1044, authored by Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), bans the manufacture, sale and use of firefighting foam containing PFAS from use in most applications by January 1, 2022.
The state would be required to track sales and keep the public informed of the ban. Use in training classes also would be barred, and manufacturers would have to disclose to buyers whether firefighting gear contains the compounds. The bill would also restrict disposal of the unused foams.
Violations would be subject to civil penalties of up to $5,000 for a first violation and $10,000 for each subsequent violation.
“The toxic PFAS chemicals in firefighting foams put our heroic firefighters’ health at risk for cancer and other serious health issues,” said Bill Allayaud, EWG’s director of government affairs for California.
“At least 7.5 million Californians have PFAS in their drinking water supplies, and the historic use of PFAS-based firefighting foams is one of the sources of this contamination,” Allayaud said. Given that the state is in the process of testing its drinking water sources for PFAS, the number is likely much higher.
Even very low doses of PFAS chemicals in drinking water have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, liver or thyroid disease and other health problems. PFAS do not break down in the environment, spread quickly and bioaccumulate. All of the detections in California water systems’ sources exceeded 1 part per trillion, or ppt, the safe level recommended by the best independent studies and endorsed by EWG.
In 2019, a white paper by an international team of experts at the International Pollutants Elimination Network, or IPEN, found “unequivocal evidence” that firefighters using foams made with PFAS had “unacceptably” high levels of two types of PFAS in their blood.
“Firefighters already face especially hazardous conditions while performing lifesaving duties,” said Allayaud. “Forcing them to use firefighting foams that contain toxic chemicals when there are effective alternatives puts their long-term health at unacceptable risk.”
Viable non-PFAS alternatives to AFFF are already on the market and are used all over the world. As of April 2019, there were more than 100 fluorine-free foams available from 24 manufacturers. These fluorine-free foams meet internationally accepted certifications and approvals, including the International Civil Aviation Organization Level B, an internal oil industry standard known as LASTFIRE, and the International Maritime Organization MSC.1/Circ. 1312.
In December, Congress made the historic decision to phase out PFAS in military firefighting foams by 2024. In 2018, Congress directed the Federal Aviation Administration to change its rules so that airports could also switch to PFAS-free foams.
California doesn’t want to wait that long to move to safer and effective alternatives.
States including Colorado, New Hampshire, New York and Washington have banned all PFAS in firefighting foam, with only limited exceptions, and require reporting of the presence of all PFAS in firefighting gear. Legislatures in Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, North Carolina and Vermont are also considering similar bans.
“We urge Gov. Newsom to sign this bill and protect the health of its firefighters and first responders,” said Allayaud. “Drinking water for almost one in five Californians is contaminated with toxic PFAS. It’s imperative that we do everything to limit this contamination and reduce the health risks of exposure.”
S.B. 1044 is co-sponsored by EWG, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, the California Professional Firefighters Association, Clean Water Action and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action. Visit https://www.ewg.org/pfaschemicals/