Nearly two-thirds of Wisconsin’s 744 fire departments are storing foam that contain harmful chemicals known as PFAS, according to a state Department of Natural Resources survey conducted this spring. The survey estimates that disposing of the foam could cost millions of dollars.
PFAS chemicals are known as forever chemicals, because they linger in the environment for a long time before breaking down. This means that once PFAS leaks out, it has a tendency to build up in rivers, streams, and fish. Exposure to PFAS can cause negative health effects.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PFAS buildup can increase cholesterol levels, harm the immune system, cause children to be born with low birth weights, disrupt hormones, and cause cancer.
According to Madison Fire Department Chief Steven Davis, the harmful health effects is one reason why the Madison Fire Department switched to PFAS-free foam at the end of 2019.
“You see it in high rates of cancer in firefighters across the country, and some of those cancers are traced back to the firefighting foam that we’ve used for a number of years because of these PFAS chemicals,” said Davis.
Over the last two years, there have been multiple high-profile cases of PFAS contamination in Wisconsin, including in Marinette, the base of firefighting foam manufacturer Tyco Fire Products. Last year in Madison a well near the Truax air base was found to have PFAS and was temporarily closed while awaiting standards for acceptable PFAS levels from the state.
In February, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers signed a bipartisan bill that banned the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS except in case of emergencies.
Under the bill violators could face fines of up to $5,000 per violation.
Evers also directed the state Department of Natural Resources to establish new standards for PFAS use and contamination. Those standards were supposed to take effect at the beginning of this month, but the state Natural Resources Board postponed their decision in their August 12th meeting. Board member Terry Hilgenberg, who voted to postpone, said in the meeting that too many people disagreed with their current proposal for them to go forward with the proposed standards.
“I think we need to get everybody together and try to resolve the differences so that we can move this thing forward,” said Hilgenberg. “I am concerned that we have such a broad base of disagreement on the current proposal that it does injustice to the department, the board, and most importantly, our citizens. So I would request the department to go back and work with the interested parties and perhaps even have conversations with the legislature on getting resolution so that at our next meeting we can move forward and be able to approve this.”
The current board meeting is set for September 23rd.