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Firefighting Foam Alternative Research Delayed By COVID-19

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COVID-19 has delayed research into alternatives to firefighting foam which is linked with cancer, according to a Department of Defense director.

Herb Nelson, director of the DOD’s Strategic Environment Research and Development Program, was asked if alternatives will be safer than the currently used firefighting foam which contains chemicals linked with cancer known as PFAS.

“It’s too early to answer that question. We’re just getting started. Normally, on this day, I could give you some early indicators, but like everyone else on this Earth, they’ve really taken a delay because of the COVID situation,” said Nelson. “Many of the people are out of their laboratories, so maybe they’re six months further behind than we would expect them to be”

Nelson said that many firefighting foam alternatives without PFAS can extinguish a 28 square foot gas fire in 40 to 45 seconds, but that the military’s standard for a fire of this size is 30 seconds.

“We’re making progress,” said Nelson. “We’re not there yet.”

The military will not be allowed to use firefighting foam containing PFAS after October 1, 2024, because of a past National Defense Authorization Act bill. Nelson said that the environmental impacts and firefighting abilities of potential substitutes for firefighting foam are being tested to meet this deadline.

Nelson’s comments occurred Tuesday at a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Readiness.

Maureen Sullivan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment at the Pentagon, said at the hearing that the department will start testing firefighters’ blood for PFAS in October.

An October 2019 scientific review found that PFAS accumulated in the bodies of firefighters at “unacceptably high” levels, and apparently humans aren’t the only animals that PFAS accumulate in. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources issued an advisory on Monday against consuming the liver of deer found within five miles of a Marinette, Wisconsin firefighting foam manufacturer.

The advisory was issued because high levels of PFAS were found in the livers of deer in the area. DNR Fish and Wildlife toxicologist Sean Strom said PFAS have also been found in waterfowl, bald eagles and other small mammals.

The DNR intends to test 20 more deer around the state for PFAS and give more information to hunters who have hunted deer in the area in the past.

It is not known when, exactly the deer were exposed to PFAS but the cause of the exposure is believed to be surface water.


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