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EDITORIAL: Get PFAS out of firefighting foam

EDITORIAL: Get PFAS out of firefighting foam

State should be ready to speed up ban on chemical with development of alternatives
EDITORIAL: Get PFAS out of firefighting foam
Photographer: Adobe Stock

Among the bills destined for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk is one that would ban PFAS chemicals from firefighting foams made and used in New York state.

It’s a necessary piece of legislation that will go a long way toward protecting the public from these harmful chemicals, and the governor should sign it.

But this law should only be considered a first step toward more comprehensive and restrictive legislation down the road.

PFAS includes PFOA and PFOS, the chemicals causing health problems in Hoosick Falls and other places.

PFAS chemicals are used in firefighting foams because they help contain fires quickly. But because of the threat to public health from PFAS, states and other countries are seeking alternatives.

A bill passed by both houses of the state Legislature earlier this year (A445A/S0439A) would prohibit the manufacture, sale and distribution of certain firefighting foams that contain intentionally added PFAS chemicals.

However, the bill doesn’t represent an all-out ban. Besides a two-year window to allow for the chemical to be phased out of manufacturing, the bill exempts firefighting foam used at oil refineries and chemical plants. And it allows for the sale to fire departments for up to five years for use in specific emergencies.

So despite this ban, foam containing PFAS will still be in use for some time.

What can change the timetable is a change in the development of fluorine-free, cost-effective alternatives. 

Right now, there’s not full consensus on whether the alternatives provide the same kind of firefighting capabilities as the existing foams. 

A small difference not be much of an issue when it comes to putting out a car fire, where no lives are at stake or where the fire isn’t likely to spread.  But effectiveness could become a factor in a plane crash where hundreds of lives are at stake or in the event of a massive fire at a fuel storage facility.

At an international conference earlier this year some fire-safety experts asserted that no exemptions for PFAS chemicals are needed because cost-effective fluorine-free alternatives work as well or better than the current foams.

Several major international airports have switched to non-PFAS alternatives.

But fluorine-free foam still doesn’t meet the most stringent performance specifications demanded by the U.S. military, according to January article in Chemical & Engineering News.

New York lawmakers should monitor developments in non-toxic alternatives and be ready to modify their legislation to shorten the times existing foams can remain in use and further limit the situations in which they can be used.

For the good of the public’s health, the faster this happens, the better.

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