The call came into the Lisbon fire department at 3:07 p.m. on Sept. 9: A vehicle was ablaze at a home on Bundy Hill Road. By the time the fire truck reached the scene, the flames had spread from the car to the side of the home and were moving rapidly.
Firefighters immediately began spraying a fire suppression foam containing hazardous chemicals known as PFAS and had the blaze out within minutes.
The homeowners were warned not to use or drink their well water, fearing the shallow well was likely contaminated by the toxic foam. The family decided to have a new well dug.
“Getting [PFAS foam] off the streets, to stop the bleeding, is now priority one,” said Ray Frigon, an environmental analyst with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).
Connecticut is now undertaking a difficult, costly effort to stop the use of PFAS firefighting foam—including buying it from local fire departments—before it can contaminate more wells, drinking water systems, rivers and streams.
PFAS is a short-hand term covering thousands of man-made polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl compounds developed in the 1940s that have been linked to different types of cancer, immune system problems, obesity, childhood development issues, diabetes and other health problems.
All over Connecticut, fire departments faced with dangerous fuel and chemical fires are routinely spraying this type of hazardous PFAS foam on roads, private property, at marinas and industrial sites.
In September and October alone, PFAS foam was used to extinguish fires in Greenwich, Fairfield, Stamford, Norwalk, Milford, East Granby, and Woodstock, according to state records.
“We get lists of [PFAS] discharges by fire departments… sometimes dozens of times a month,” Frigon said in a recent interview.
The use of PFAS firefighting foam is a devilish trade-off: The foam is great at suppressing fuel and chemical blazes, but research shows PFAS can also pose major public health and environmental risks. Nicknamed “forever chemicals,” these compounds can last for extraordinary lengths of time in the human body and the environment.
Patrick McCormack, director of the regional health district covering Lisbon, said health officials also warned the homeowners of the risks resulting from the Sept. 9 fire. It turned out the owner’s insurance ended up covering the cost of drilling a new well, McCormack said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused delays in the state’s efforts on PFAS, and questions about safely disposing or storing these hazardous firefighting chemicals are also becoming a potentially costly headache.
These chemicals have been used in everything from firefighting foam to pizza boxes and PFAS pollution has become a major concern across the U.S. The federal government still hasn’t declared PFAS to be a hazardous substance. Many states have moved independently to enact their own tough standards for how much of these chemicals should be allowed in drinking water. State officials here say Connecticut is likely to follow suit.
Last year, multiple spills of PFAS firefighting foam from Bradley International Airport into the Farmington River triggered the creation of the Connecticut Interagency PFAS Taskforce to create an action plan to minimize exposure of PFAS to state residents.
In November 2019, the task force called for buying back firefighting foam from fire departments across the state, replacing it with less toxic fire suppressing foam, and doing widespread testing for PFAS around old landfills and industrial sites that could be polluting drinking water wells and systems.
The General Assembly in March allocated $2 million for the anti-PFAS programs. State officials say the spread of COVID-19 has resulted in delays in implementing some of the programs and the release of funds to support them.
Lori Mathieu, head of the state Department of Health’s public drinking water section, said creation of a planned state Safe Drinking Water Advisory Council “has been on pause because of COVID.” The council, which is expected to develop tougher Connecticut drinking water standards for PFAS, isn’t expected to be up and running until next summer, she said.
State officials have asked all major public drinking water systems to test for PFAS, and those tests haven’t revealed any major contamination. But plans for widespread testing around landfills that may be polluting private wells have been put on the back burner because of the current focus on ending the use of firefighting foam.
Anne Hulick, head of the Connecticut chapter of Clean Water Action, said she understands the difficulties state officials are facing but noted that other states have been able to set far tougher PFAS standards for drinking water.
“Why can’t we move a little quicker, given what other states are doing,” she asked.
The recommended federal safety level for PFAS in drinking water is 70 parts per trillion for two types of the chemicals. Connecticut’s guidelines say that the sum of “five PFAS chemicals should not exceed the limit of 70 parts per trillion,” according to a DEEP website. Vermont, for example, has a more stringent level at 20 parts per trillion.
Frigon estimates the state will start to buy back PFAS foam from local departments in early 2021. Some fire departments, including Bridgeport, Preston and Berlin, have already begun using non-PFAS foam to fight chemical and fuel fires, Frigon said.
“It wasn’t cheap,” Preston Fire Chief Thomas Casey said of the purchase of an alternative foam. He said his small department currently has about 40 gallons of old PFAS fire suppressant stored in a drum as they wait for the state buy-back program to get underway.
State officials are unsure what to do with the estimated 45,000 gallons of PFAS foam that they will buy back from local departments.
A plan to have the foam burned in an upstate New York facility was halted after tests around the Norlite high-temperature incineration plant in Cohoes, N.Y., found soils and water contaminated with PFAS.
“Scientists say incineration doesn’t completely break down the PFAS foam,” Hulick said. “It can get out of the smokestacks and impact air, soil and water.”
Frigon said the state is now looking at costlier PFAS foam disposal options as far away as Ohio and is considering several Connecticut locations for “temporary storage” of these toxic materials.