When traces of potentially dangerous chemicals were found in the groundwater near New Hampshire Fire Academy in Concord last year, state officials were quick to clarify that the city’s drinking water would not be affected.
But the find was still a warning bell. For years, Granite State residents and agencies have been waking up to the potential risks from ingesting per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, often referred to as PFAS, after large quantities were found in 2014 in water surrounding the Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth.
The reach of the chemicals went beyond the Seacoast. Older stocks of firefighting foam containing PFAS can be found in fire departments across the state; last year’s detection at New Hampshire Fire Academy came after decades of using the foam during training there.
Now, state lawmakers are hoping to rein in the chemicals. A law signed by Gov. Chris Sununu would require fire departments to turn over older stocks of firefighting foam to the state, prohibit them from purchasing more foam containing PFAS, and restrict them from using existing foam except in specific circumstances.
And the fire departments say they’re happy to oblige.
“I think that we’re forcing departments and industry to change quicker with this law,” said Bill McQuillen, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire. “I think we know that this stuff is bad and it contaminates our environment and we’ve got to do a better job of making sure we’re not putting it into the environment needlessly.”
Senate Bill 257 will prevent “Class B” firefighting foam containing PFAS from being used for firefighting or training and prohibit its sale or distribution.
Towns and cities must gather any older stock – known as “legacy stock” – and prepare to hand them over to the state Department of Environmental Services. And the new law stipulates that fire departments will only be immune from lawsuits over the use of those foams if they were used unintentionally or in emergencies.
The law contains exceptions, particularly for large storage houses and airports, which are for now bound by federal law to carry the PFAS-containing firefighting foams, which are effective in extinguishing fires fueled by flammable liquids.
Tuesday’s bill signing represents a leap overall toward tighter regulation over the chemicals, just as the state readies for a lawsuit against a major manufacturer of the chemical and as public concern continues to grow. In a statement, Sununu called the bill “a continuation of our efforts to ensure that New Hampshire is preventing further proliferation of PFAS chemicals in our environment.”
Studies have shown that PFAS, a supercategory comprising about 3,000 different chemicals, can remain in the body for years after ingestion and lead to a string of serious health conditions, affecting reproductive and immune systems and in some cases causing cancer.
Earlier this year, New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services proposed ambitious new upper limits on allowable levels of PFAS in drinking water – the most restrictive in the country. And the state is presently suing eight companies, including 3M and DuPont, for allegedly using the chemicals in their products despite knowing the risks.
For many local New Hampshire fire departments, Class B foam has been a staple of their station’s toolbox. But in practice, it’s not often used.
Class B foam is advantageous when fighting fires involving liquid flammables like oil or gasoline spills; the substance can both put out a gas fire quickly and stop an existing fire from spreading to a gas puddle or stream.
Those properties have made it effective at commercial airports and air bases; federal law requires commercial airports to have it on hand in case of jet crashes.
But at large bases like Pease and other facilities like the Fire Academy that have used it over the years, the foam accumulated in the soil and in some cases leached into drinking water. These days, most fire departments are aware of the health risks and some have taken active steps.
“These kinds of foams are very important in very specialized situations, but they’re not commonly used by fire departments,” said Mike Wimsatt, director of waste management at the Department of Environmental Services.
The Concord Fire Department is one of those that adapted early; for the past four years, none of the foams it uses have contained PFAS, according to Deputy Fire Chief Aaron McIntire.
“We’ve actually been ahead of the curve,” he said in an interview. “We’ve been that way for a while.”
In recent years, the New Hampshire Fire Academy has also shifted its materials to non-PFAS foam.
Supporters say the new law will jumpstart the process to transition to different foam, as manufacturers begin to adapt as well. More varieties of non-PFAS foam are becoming available as demand and public frustration grows.
“The foam industry is moving in a different direction,” said McQuillen. “The legacy foam is beginning to be replaced and retired.”
Still, representatives from the American Chemistry Council have argued that the PFAS-infused foams can often be the most effective tool for certain firefighters. Industry representatives had pressed to get the exemption in the passed law for those uses.
Under the new law, the Department of Environmental Services has until December 2020 to conduct a survey of fire departments. By the next budget, July 2021, the removal process will begin.
“We actually started doing some of that work early on when we learned about these foams being out there and creating problems,” said Wimsatt. “Clearly, on the heels of this bill we’ll need to redouble our efforts and try to make sure we get thorough survey responses.”
In an interview, Sen. Tom Sherman, a Rye Democrat and sponsor of the bill, said Tuesday was a milestone.
“This bill was important for the entire state because virtually every fire house has some of this stuff in it,” he said. “… Now that we know of the toxicity, we need to deal with it but minimizing the expense to the taxpayers.”
On Tuesday, Sununu also signed Senate Bill 193, which would prohibit the import and sale of furniture containing flame retardant chemicals – which have been shown to release toxins during house fires.