Most local fire departments don't use foam containing PFAS

Becky Vargo • Oct 30, 2018 at 7:00 AM

Firefighters often use foam to suffocate any embers still smoldering in house fires and to create a fun area at open-house events, but this Class A foam does not contain the PFAS chemicals.

“It’s like a concentrated dish soap,” Grand Haven Township Fire Chief Tom Gerencer said of the Class A foam.

Gerencer said that his department has not used the AAAF foam (containing PFAS) since 1994. Even then, it was not frequently used, the chief said.

The AAAF foam that does contain PFAS is only used for petroleum-based fires, Gerencer said.

Robinson Township Fire Chief Paul Vanvelzen said his department has never had any foams that contain PFAS chemicals.

“We only use Class A foam,” he said.

Vanvelzen said they used to have a foam play area at their open house, but haven’t done so in several years.

The story is different in Ferrysburg, where large gasoline storage tanks dot the landscape off Old Grand Haven Road and North Shore Drive.

“We currently have 1,500 gallons of AFFF Class B firefighting foam in our station manufactured over various years,” said Fire Chief Mike Olthof. 

“AFFF or Class B type foam works by suppressing the vapors given off by flammable liquids. Obviously we have a lot of this product on hand due to the fact that most of West Michigan's gasoline supply is piped to, stored in, and trucked out of Ferrysburg,” he said.

Each month more than 21 million gallons of flammable liquids are trucked out of Ferrysburg and more than 30 million gallons are stored there, Olthof said.

“With that much potential that is why we have so much of this type of foam on hand,” the Ferrysburg fire chief said. “I reported our AFFF Foam Inventory to the State Fire Marshal in March, one week after his directive for inventories was sent out. I have been in contact with the State Fire Marshal directly and he has advised us to only use this product only if needed for an emergency.”

The state is working on a disposal plan for these types of foam. They are also looking for an alternative product which can be used effectively on these types of fuel fires.

“In my 32 years on this department we have not trained with the actual product due to its cost and I do not remember using it on any actual fires,” Olthof said.

“The foam that we mostly use is Class A foam which is a dish soap-like product designed to make water penetrate wood or class A materials,” Olthof said. “We regularly use this on all structure and grass or woods fires. Class A foam does NOT contain PFAS. Its very important to keep the two types of foam straight because many departments utilize Class A Foam”

“We do not use any types of foam at our open house,” Olthof said. “Foam is very expensive.”

The chief said they are now waiting further directive from the State Fire Marshal.

“I am quite sure that disposal of this product will not be cheep and replacing it will more than likely cost even more,” Olthof said. “In the meantime if we have an incident and life's or property are in danger we have to use what we have until we hear something different.

The Grand Haven Township department has also supplied that information to the state fire marshal’s office for a report being generated in an effort to make sure there is safe disposal of the foam that contains PFAS. 

In a Traverse City Record-Eagle story Oct. 27, State Fire Marshal Kevin Sehlmeyer said officials were waiting for about 400 more fire departments to respond to the survey, which so far shows about 43 percent have supplies of the foam. Officials estimate there are 32,000 gallons of the foam at fire departments across the state and they are trying to determine the safest way to dispose of it, he said in the article. 

The Traverse City Fire Department has 170 gallons waiting to be used, its fire chief told the Record-Eagle. The foam currently sits in 5-gallon pails, affixed with “Do Not Use” signs.

Sehlmeyer is surveying more than 1,000 fire service departments in an effort to identify the amount of PFAS foam and develop statewide solutions to dispose of the toxic firefighting foam properly and prevent further contamination throughout the state, according to a press release issued in March from the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.

“The feedback we receive from our fire departments will be critical as (the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team) continues to develop detailed protocols to address this critical issue,” said Sehlmeyer. “I encourage everyone in the fire service community to participate in the survey and provide their best practices on the safe disposal of firefighting foam containing PFAS.”

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