February 8, 2019

In January, legislation called the PFAS Action Act was introduced to Congress in the U.S. House by a bipartisan group of Michigan representatives. The bill would designate PFAS as a “hazardous substance” under the Superfund program, which would pave the way for EPA to establish enforceable regulatory criteria for the family of chemicals. Superfund, the common name for The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), provides the EPA authority to respond directly to releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances that pose a risk to public health or the environment.

In recent years, there has been an emerging concern about potential health effects from exposure to high concentrations of PFAS. PFAS are man-made chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products worldwide since the 1950s. They have been used in non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain resistant fabrics and carpets, some cosmetics, some firefighting foams, and products that resist grease, water, and oil. The most commonly studied PFAS – perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) – appear to cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. While there is more to learn, PFOA and PFOS have been phased out of production and use in the United States, replaced by other PFAS compounds thought to pose less risk.

PFAS Risk at Airports

The PFAS risk in the commercial airport community has created a conundrum for airport operators. Historically, aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) services, were required to use AFFF (aqueous film-forming foam) containing PFAS compounds for fire-fighting, fire-training exercises and equipment testing and calibration. While airports have been tracking the developing concern with PFAS, eliminating PFAS-containing AFFF isn’t easy. PFAS-based AFFF products are superior for extinguishing petroleum fires, where a few seconds are critical in real-life ARFF responses. Additionally, the only AFFF products currently available in North America that meet the Federal Aviation Admiration’s (FAA’s) strict performance specifications contain PFAS. Unfortunately, the beneficial resiliency of PFAS in firefighting is the same characteristic that makes it a concern in the environment; it doesn’t break down. An airport’s history of AFFF use may have left behind a legacy of PFAS soil and groundwater contamination. And since airports seem to be  always under construction, there’s no knowing if contaminated soil has been moved around their sites.

FAA Issues Cert Alert Permitting New ARFF Vehicle Testing Equipment

The growing concern over the use and discharge of AFFF at airports led to the inclusion of a mandate within the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 (enacted October 5, 2018), directing the FAA to stop requiring the use of fluorinated foam no later than three years from the date of enactment (October 4, 2021).  In mid-January the FAA also published Cert Alert 19-01Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) Testing at Certificated Part 139 Airports. The Cert Alert provides information and guidance to airport operators regarding optional equipment for use in testing AFFF systems on their ARFF vehicles.

The Cert Alert recommended several FAA-approved AFFF testing systems, which enable testing of AFFF proportioning and dispensing systems while limiting or eliminating the need to dispense AFFF onto the ground. It also recommends establishing procedures for containing AFFF during training and/or testing as well as establishing proper handling and disposal procedures during testing and re-servicing of each ARFF vehicle with AFFF.

As PFAS research and legislation moves forward, it is important to begin planning for new processes, protocols and testing. As a baseline, airports should  evaluate their history of AFFF use and know where their risks may be. Additionally, they should work with the airport’s fire and rescue team to inventory current supplies of AFFF and verify that they are using firefighting foams reformulated to contain shorter-chain PFAS compounds (no PFOA or PFOS). If water quality monitoring has already demonstrated the presence of PFAS, one tool that may be helpful to understand, diagnose, and interpret airport water quality data is The Airport Cooperative Research Program, Report 166: Interpreting Results of Airport Water Monitoring developed by Gresham SmithOur water and environmental experts continue to monitor developments in the PFAS discussion to help our clients navigate through the complexities presented by this contaminant of emerging concern.

This post was authored by Scott Mounts, P.E., when he served as a senior environmental engineer in Gresham Smith’s Water + Environment market.