MADISON, WI (SPECTRUM NEWS 1) —A harmful range of man-made chemicals known as PFAS is common in firefighting foam.
Using the foam to fight fires can cause the dangerous chemicals to get into waterways and even hurt firefighters over the long-term.
“It's a relatively newer concern for us in the fire service with foam,” said Bob Luling, a firefighter with the Madison Fire Department.
The Madison Fire Department recently switched to newly-available foams that are made without the chemical.
“[We're] cognizant of some of the impacts our old foam was having in terms of the drinking water and it's kind of a forever chemical where it doesn't go away, it doesn't break down,” Lulig said.
The Department said they think the new foam works just as well as the old foam. If anything they think it may have made their operations more effective because they switched to two different kinds of foam for different fires.
The new foams are about four percent more expensive. The Department says it's manageable to them, and worth it.
“It makes a ton of sense to, why use a chemical that's toxic and persistent if you don't have to? I think that's really good,” said Christy Remucal, an environmental and civil engineering professor at UW-Madison who researches PFAS.
Remucal said researchers often refer to PFAS as the 'forever chemical'.
“They last a long time, once they're inside your body they stay there a long time and some of them are known to be toxic at pretty low concentrations,” Remucal said.
She said if they aren't contained while firefighting, they end up in water ways. Potentially contaminating water and harming people. The chemicals themselves stay in the water for long periods of time, because they by design don't break down.
“It's nice to see the fire department here being so proactive and they're doing the right thing and I hope others follow suit,” Remucal said.
That could happen soon.
The Department of Natural Resources is looking into regulations on PFAS that could someday include firefighting foams. Some states have already banned foams with PFAS.
Mike Wos, director of The Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin Charitable Foundation says he does not know of any other fire department in the state that has made the switch.
He said foam in general is expensive and many departments can't afford to dispose of what they do have to buy more. The Madison Fire Department acknowledged that was the most expensive part for them.
Wos thinks if departments will make the switch to the newly-available PFAS-free foam it would be when they needed to get more anyway. Though he supports the change as more information about the chemicals becomes available.
“The research that we're seeing is quite alarming,” Wos said.
Firefighters are already more likely to get cancer according the Centers for Disease Control studies.
Organizations like the International Fire Chiefs Association warns that PFAS may be one of the causes.
Add that to the list of reasons Madison wanted to make the switch.
“It will reduce the occupational exposure to firefighters on the Madison Fire Department as one of the side-effects of this change over,” Lulig said.
The department officially made the switch on Friday. Despite the costs they say it was worth it cut down on environmental impacts and to increase firefighter safety.
“Obviously we care about each other, we care about our constituents in the city of Madison, the groundwater, the drinking water, we all have families in the area,” Lulig said.
Remucal said PFAS is often found in man-made materials such as certain cosmetic products, wax paper for food wrappers and industrial applications.
“We interact with them daily,” Remucal said.
Over the last decade or two scientists and researchers around the country have discovered PFAS's presence in a multitude of places.