A recent toxic spill at the Red Hill fuel facility in Hawaii led to the release of dangerous per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which have also been discovered at the Kalaeloa Airport. These manufactured forever chemicals are an active component in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) and help to cut off the oxygen of a fire to extinguish the flames. However, when a person is exposed to these long-lasting chemicals, they can experience damaging health conditions like liver damage, thyroid disease, and various forms of cancer.
A 2020 report by the Army National Guard revealed that releases of PFAS occurred at random locations at the Kalaeloa Airport. AFFF firefighting foam was stored in the hangar and used for monthly pump tests, which could have caused the PFAS exposure at the airport. The use of AFFF firefighting foam led to exposure for Honolulu firefighters, putting them at risk of suffering severe and life-threatening health effects.
PFAS Detected at Kalaeloa Airport
The Hawaii Department of Transportation Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting (ARFF) Unit released AFFF regularly at the former fuel farm at the Kalaeloa Airport, according to a 2020 Army National Guard report. Firetrucks were outfitted with tanks containing 25 gallons of AFFF mixed with water. Firefighters conducted monthly pump tests around the Kalaeloa Airport to test the foam, which involved spraying the AFFF above the fenceline separating the runway from a former fuel farm.
This has been a common practice at military installations and airports across Hawaii since the 1970s. Issues first arose on October 12th, 2017, when firefighters noticed an unknown foam substance on a walkway within the former fuel farm and flattened vegetation around the airport. It was suggested that the direction the vegetation was flattened was adjacent to underground injection control (UIC) well #73, indicating the toxic AFFF may have entered the UIC well. These wells are not capable of handling toxic chemicals, which could have led to the leak and release of PFAS.
According to the Army report, the Hawaii Department of Transportation (HDOT) ARFF unit was unaware of the fact that the former fuel farm was no longer under the control of the HDOT. The Hawaii National Guard was not involved in monthly pumping tests. The tests involved setting fires and extinguishing them with AFFF, which could have seeped into the soil and caused PFAS contamination. This report of contamination comes on the back of a toxic spill of AFFF with PFAS that occurred at the Red Hill fuel facility.
AFFF and PFAS Defined
Aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) is a fire suppressant used to fight liquid fires. It contains water alongside other chemicals, such as ethylene and propylene glycol, to prolong the life of the foam. For this firefighting foam to work properly, it must be able to create a film over the fire that can help extinguish it. This is why per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are used.
The most common forms of PFAS used in firefighting foam are perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Despite the help they can provide to suppress fires, long-term exposure to PFAS can have life-threatening consequences.
Adverse Medical Conditions Caused by PFAS Exposure
Most people have small traces of PFAS in their blood, as low exposure does not cause significant harm. However, large amounts of contamination by PFAs in the blood can lead to significant health risks that can threaten a person’s life. Animal studies have been conducted that have drawn a connection between PFAS exposure and liver and immune system damage. It can also cause developmental issues for children.
The following are some of the medical conditions caused by PFAS exposure:
- Liver damage
- Thyroid disease
- Increased cholesterol levels
- Increased risk of high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia in pregnant women
- Kidney cancer
- Testicular cancer
- Decreased vaccine response in children
Response to PFAS at Kalaeloa Airport
The exposure to toxic PFAS that happened at Kalaeloa Airport has led many people and groups to respond. Pat Elder, a member of the advocacy group Military Poisons, believed the exposure to be a part of normal procedure. “They were simply doing what they had always done. Every month, they load up the fire trucks, and they spray PFAS to make sure that they work when there’s a real emergency.”
Worries have come up about the adverse health effects that state firefighters, construction workers, and others exposed to the forever chemicals could suffer from. Retired Army Colonel Ann Wright is one such concerned voice who believes workers should be notified of their exposure to PFAS. “Workers should be notified that they’re working with some very, very dangerous material that can have life-long health effects.” She also believes the public should know of other places storing these toxic chemicals. “We have on this island a huge, huge amount of very, very dangerous product that are at times leaching into the ocean. We hope it’s not leaching in our drinking water.”
Concerns about the use of AFFF with PFAS have reached the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association, which has stated that AFFF is only used for emergencies. They also stated that Honolulu firefighters do not use it all. Bobby Lee, the president of the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association, said the following, “Once it was found out that AFFF had health concerns cancer issues, we were very happy the HFD among other departments pulled the AFFF off of the trucks and no longer exposed our firefighters to AFFF.”
Military Has to Phase Out PFAS by 2024
PFAS are toxic chemicals that can threaten the lives of those exposed to them, such as the people at the Red Hill fuel facility and Kalaeleo Airport. The life-threatening effects of these forever chemicals have led to the decision to phase PFAS out of use in firefighting foam.
On June 13th, 2019, the United States House Committee on Armed Forces approved the decision to phase out the use of PFAS in firefighting foam, as the carcinogenic effect is too dangerous for armed service members, firefighters, and civilians exposed to the substances. The phase-out of PFAS in firefighting foam must be complete by 2024.