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Navy researches alternative to firefighting foam that contaminated water

By BROCK VERGAKIS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: October 31, 2017

CHESAPEAKE, Va. (Tribune News Service) — The Navy is researching new types of firefighting foam free of contaminants that were found in well water near a landing field used by fighter jets and in water systems near several other military installations around the country, according to a congressional watchdog report.

Firefighting foam is used by the Defense Department to quickly extinguish fires and prevent them from reigniting, but the foam used since the 1970s has contained perfluorinated compounds.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t regulate those compounds, but it considers them an “emerging contaminant” that could threaten health or the environment. The EPA is studying the contaminants to determine whether regulations for acceptable levels are needed. A provisional health advisory level is in place for now.

Some studies have indicated the compounds increase the risk for cancer in animals and damage to human liver cells, and an association with thyroid disease. Other studies have shown that exposure may cause elevated cholesterol levels and low birth weight in humans.

High levels of the contaminants were discovered in January in well water near Naval Auxiliary Landing Field Fentress, where F/A-18s simulate landing on an aircraft carrier.

Naval Air Systems Command, the Naval Research Laboratory in Arlington and a private firefighting foam manufacturer each are researching the development of a PFC-free firefighting foam, which the Defense Department believes would reduce the environmental impact of training while keeping personnel safe. The research will cost $2.5 million and is expected to be completed in 2020.

The Navy is providing bottled water for its personnel at Fentress and two nearby homes. Another three homes are undergoing quarterly monitoring to ensure contaminant levels remain below the EPA’s provisional limits.

The Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday says the Defense Department is restricting the use of its firefighting foams and testing them to determine the amount of PFCs they contain.

The Navy reported it spent more than $20 million investigating whether PFCs were in the water near 47 installations, and spent about $24 million on mitigation efforts at or near five of those, including $3 million at Fentress.

The Navy plans to install a treatment system at Fentress to treat for PFCs, the GAO report said.

©2017 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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Kuwaiti firefighters spray foam on a fire during a simulated downed aircraft mass casualty/hazardous material exercise March 24, 2015 during Eagle Resolve 2015.
LEON COOK/U.S. ARMY

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