Truckee firefighters cease usage of fluorine-based foam
Special to the Sierra Sun
The Truckee Fire Protection District has announced it will no longer use fluorine-based foams to fight Class B fires due to the chemical’s staying properties and potential to pollute the local water supply.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are man-made chemical compounds found in a wide range of nonstick consumer products including polishes, waxes, paints and cleaning commodities. The chemical is also used to fight fires in the form of the two PFAS compounds — perfluorooctane acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS).
Fire Chief Bill Seline said fluorine’s nonstick properties were once the only viable option firefighters had to properly smother and suffocate fires involving flammable liquids.
“(Class B fires) need a certain type of foam that will cover the fuel when you squirt it out there so that the vapors don’t come up through it,” Seline explained.
Seline said his district replaced the aqueous film-forming foam, fluorine-based solution with Angus Fire’s JetFoam ICAO-B, a fluorine-free foam designed to extinguish and secure flammable aviation fuel spills and fires.
Seline said he first learned about the secondary impact of PFASs four years ago when there were no available alternatives. Seline discovered JetFoam from an announcement made by the Seattle Tacoma Airport Fire Chief during one of his routine searches for an update on the issue.
The prompt response from Seline’s district reflects appreciation for the region’s topography, wildlife and water quality.
“It was time,” Seline said his district’s switch. “We’ve heard about it for the last four years. We’re environmentally sensitive here. We live in the mountains. We want to do the right thing.”
Kevin Smith, general manager of the Truckee Tahoe Airport District, said he is grateful that the use of fluorine-based foam at his airport has been relatively small in comparison to others.
Smith said the airport has sprayed the fluorine-based foam “a half-dozen times in its 60 years of existence.”
Smith said larger hub airports in populated communities have fire training facilities. The trainings those facilities have release fluorine-based foams regularly in practice.
“The only time it was ever used here was if there was an actual accident,” Smith said.
Smith said he took cues from Seline as the fire department transitioned, adding that the update echoes other steps the airport is trying to take to become more sustainable.
Mike Staudenmayer, the general manager for Northstar Community Services District, said the nonstick properties of fluorine are what make the chemical effective — and toxic — to use.
“These are forever chemicals,” Staudenmayer explained, “once they’re introduced they stick around.”
That permanence is why Staudenmayer tested the local springs and groundwater wells after reading a study on the presence of PFASs from bioaccumulated skiwax at a Nordic Resort.
Staudenmayer said his fire department has been off the fluorine-based foam for decades, but wanted to determine if water runoff from a resort’s snowmelt was an additional concern.
“We tested through EPA method 537.1,” Staudenmayer said, citing the regulatory body of water purveyors in California. “We came back non-detect in both of our systems.”
Staudenmayer said trace amounts of fluorine are found in nearly every body, perhaps due to use of common fluorine-based products like wrapping paper or teflon, but can have negative health consequences in higher concentrations.
According to FEMA’s website, PFAS accumulate in the body and can cause cancers in the thyroid, testes, kidneys and bladder.
Staudenmayer said the Environmental Protection Agency recommends producers label products with fluorine levels above 70 parts per trillion, and expects the state of California to adopt “MCLs” or maximum containment levels requirements, soon.
Staudenmayer’s said as manager of the special district, he oversees the district’s use of water, sewer and solid waste, snow removal, forest and fuels management as well as trail systems.
“I oversee water purveying and distribution,” Staudenmayer said, adding that his concern extends to the collection of springs mid-mountain in the region.
Staudenmayer said his district age-dated its spring water and found that it fell to the ground 18 months ago. The ground water that comes from the aquifer was determined to be “an excess of 5,000 years old,” a resource Staudenmayer hopes to protect for the benefit of locals and those living at lower elevations as well.
“We’re lucky,” Staudenmayer said. “We’re at the top of the aquifer—the water supply.”
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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