Michigan House passes bills regulating PFAS in firefighting foam

Treated water from the PFAS plume underneath the former Wurtsmith Air Force base flows into Van Etten Creek, where a "do not eat fish" advisory has been in place since 2012 | Michael Gerstein

The Michigan House passed three bills Thursday that would tighten regulations on certain hazardous chemicals found in firefighter foam.

Class B firefighting foam is used by firefighters to extinguish fires in which materials like gasoline, oil or jet fuel are burning. In many class B foams, the active ingredient that combines with foaming agents to suffocate a fuel fire is PFAS, or per-fluoroalkyl or poly-fluoroalkyl substances.

PFAS are highly toxic chemicals known to cause elevated risk of diseases like cancer.

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State Rep. Jeff Yaroch (R-Richmond) is the main sponsor of two of the three bills passed Thursday. HB 4390 would prohibit the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals in firefighter training and require certain training on its use. HB 4391 would require the adoption of certain rules regarding firefighters’ use of firefighting foam concentrate containing PFAS.

Jeff Yaroch

Yaroch, a former firefighter, says the dangers of PFAS were not well-known when he was working.

“We weren’t aware that it was a risk. … For years, we were under the impression that foam was not a hazard,” Yaroch said, adding that the manufacturers of the foam containing PFAS had indicated that there was no environmental threat.

“When it came to light that this was actually bad for you, I wanted to be taking the lead in the legislation [on] protecting firefighters,” Yaroch said.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PFAS have been manufactured and used in the U.S. since the 1940s and can be found in a wide variety of consumer products. PFOA and PFOS are the most common of the group; these two chemicals are known as “forever chemicals,” in that they do not break down and can accumulate over time in either the environment or human body.

Michigan also has been considering the strongest PFAS limit in the country. The EPA has an advisory level of 70 parts per trillion (ppt). A Michigan panel of experts named by Whitmer recommended this summer to the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) a threshold of 8 ppt for PFOA and 16 ppt for PFOS.

“It very often gets into the water supply and gets out into the environment … then we all get potentially exposed,” Yaroch said.

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Yaroch says that since more people are aware of PFAS risks today, the fire service has been gradually “moving away” from using class B foams that contain PFAS. “Not all class B foams have PFAS, and there are new ones coming into the market that don’t contain PFAS,” he said.

In the meantime, however, Yaroch wants firefighters to be as safe as possible around those foams that may pose health risks. He says the bills will encourage firefighters to observe best practices and be conservative in its use.

Sue Allor

State Rep. Sue Allor (R-Wolverine) is the main sponsor of the third bill, HB 4389, which would require reports on the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS and require the Department of Environmental Quality to accept it for disposal.

Michigan has the most PFAS contaminated sites in the country, in part due to the state’s aggressive testing. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and many Michigan members of Congress support stronger PFAS provisions in the latest defense bill. Many military sites used firefighting foam. 

According to a study released Thursday by the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group, Michigan has five locations on a list of 100 U.S. military sites with the worst PFAS contamination levels.

  • The decommissioned K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base in Marquette County.
  • The Alpena County Regional Airport
  • The decommissioned Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda
  • The W.K. Kellogg Airport in Battle Creek
  • The Battle Creek Air National Guard Base
Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, civil rights, health care/safety net and criminal justice. She is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or listening to podcasts, she loves art and design, discovering new music, being out in nature and spending time with her two very special cats.

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