The largest pollution problem the U.S. has ever faced--that's what one scientist out of the University of Notre Dame is calling the result of decades of use of toxic PFAS and PFOA chemicals.
Calling the chemical problem both pervasive and horrible, Dr. Graham Peaslee, a nuclear physicist at the the University of Dame, has been studying flame retardants and the presence of PFAS chemicals in firefighting gear. He told WDEL he first became interested in the topic after speaking with Diane Cotter, the wife of a Worcester, Massachusetts, firefighter who battled cancer, and was the subject of Part 2 of Fighting Fire with Fire.
"A year ago, a firefighters' spouse contacted me and said: 'Is there anything you can do for my husband? He's got cancer.' A cancer survivor actually, but it's a very moving story, and I offered to do testing for them, for free, because they were looking for answers."
Now, Peaslee is investigating both at the toxic foam used by military firefighters and the gear career firefighters wear.
"It's all relevant, and it's a much bigger mess than we intended for when we first began," he said.
Though this chemical is not instantly toxic, he says low exposure over long periods of time can have a serious impact.
"It travels to every organ in the body, and it also suppresses the immune system; I mean it can target any number of other diseases that show up--and so that's the insidious nature of this thing--it goes to every organ, and wherever the blood supply goes in the body, it will follow.
The chemicals have been used in products for nearly 70 years with, at one point in time, almost daily usage by the military.
"It's not like they throw it away, but every time there's an aircraft crash they use several buckets of it, and every time they test or train with, they use a bucket of it," he explained. "So we've put enough of this material out in the environment to contaminate significant quantities of water, to the level that we're afraid that we we would see health effects."
To give you an idea just how toxic these chemicals are:
"If I were to take a five-gallon bucket of typical firefighting foam and accidentally spill it, then the calculation that I come up with is that that 70 part per trillion would contaminate about 400 Olympic-sized swimming pools, and that's from a single bucket," he said.
He's heard recently that scientists may lower the exposure level.
"It could go as long as 100 times lower than that, which would be one of the most dangerous chemicals."
He called this the largest pollution problem the U.S. has ever faced.
"It's only just being realized how pervasive it is, and how this stuff never goes away--it's the forever chemical philosophy--because these type of bonds just don't break," said Peaslee. "There's no natural thing that breaks it down short of very specific lightning strikes or something of that level. So these chemicals stay around for a long time, and even though they're not acutely toxic, their ability to cause other diseases in humans is well known, and it bio-accumulates, so it goes into your food, or it goes into the food that your animals eat and you eat the animals, and it goes up the food chain, so you will get increasing exposures from everything we put into the environment."
While many of us could have been exposed unknowingly, retired military firefighters like Mitch Gauge and Steve Zalzone would see far higher occupational exposure.
"They were exposed because, at the time, they were told it was perfectly safe, and when you think about the alternatives, what they were using before were protein foams--those were very smelly--so this new foam that came out had no odor and was 'safe as soap,' is what they were told, so there are lots of examples of them doing foam angels, and playing in foam without protective gear on," he said.
While Peaslee said the military hasn't used it in training since 2016, and it will likely be outlawed in a few years, that's no recompense for the decades of military families who've been exposed.
"It's unfortunate, it doesn't just expose the people who were blowing the foam and then walking through, but as they washed it off the runways, it was a 'safe as soap,' so it went into the ground water immediately surrounding each base."
Groundwater near both Dover Air Force Base and New Castle Air Force Base has been found to be contaminated with PFAS chemicals.
"We care, and we're working on it," said U.S. Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester. "They served our country, they deserve our service."
"[We've] been working on and tracking what the Department of Defense's Mark Esper has been doing or not been doing, in terms of their leadership role, to both mitigate this and stop it, but also prevent this from happening in the future," said Blunt Rochester.
The Delaware delegation sent a letter to the Secretary of Defense on July 31, 2019, calling on them to step up and engage on the issue, so community residents and businesses can be made aware of the plan going forward. To date, that letter hasn't received a response.
"I think it's important to note that this beyond Delaware. Delaware happens to be one of the bases, our base has the fourth highest concentration, but there are...over 175 installations across the country that are experiencing this contamination as well," said Blunt Rochester. "Everybody deserves clean, safe drinking water, and throughout our state and throughout the country, this is an issue that we want people to know we're working on and we're fighting for them because they deserve it," she said.
U.S. Senator Tom Carper, a retired Navy captain, got emotional when talking about a fatal aircraft crash at Moffett Field in Santa Clara County, California, where toxic firefighting foam was used.
"I could see black smoke rising, what appeared to be from my base...I got closer, and it was a huge amount of black smoke," he said. "What had happened at the Moffett Field Naval Air Station, there are two parallel runways...you're directed by the traffic controller to land left or right..."
That morning, the air traffic controller had made a mistake and instructed to planes to land on the right runway. His voice dropped to a barely audible whisper.
"A much larger airplane, a NASA airplane, was instructed to land, and landed right on top of the [pause] P-3. Everybody died by one person. They were my friends, and it's so hard. Firefighters rallied, they came out to put out the fires, and they used foam to save lives, to try to save lives, and they only saved one. But it's ironic that a substance, permanent chemicals, PFOAs, PFAS, that something was invented to save lives, as it turns out has a negative, adverse effect, that it can endanger lives."
Legislation that passed in the Senate, and is contained in the defense bill, called for the monitoring of PFAS chemicals in physical screenings for active duty military firefighters.
"We want to make sure the Veterans Administration is teed up and aware of this concern, and that when they're providing healthcare to veterans through the VA, people who previously served on active duty, who used these firefighting foams that they have a protocol in place to make sure that they're checking for possible danger and damage to like thyroids or cancers that come," said Carper.
Blunt Rochester said the full extent of the contamination remains unknown along with the wide-ranging potential health ramifications.
"They say between birth defects and...the auto-immune system, those are the things that are greatly impacted, so again, I can't right here, tell you there's a link or a tie, but what I can tell you is that as a congressional delegation, we are asking for and calling for the Department of Defense to provide us with that information," said the congresswoman. "Every day that goes by, I'm sure, for them and their families, it's still a struggle."
The chemicals' usage creates quite an ironic juxtaposition with a firefighters' role to save lives.
"There's no way that a firefighter would potentially contaminate his or her own hometown they're there to try and protect right, or the base," Peaslee said. "If I'm on a burning plane, maybe this is what we want to use, but the rest of the time, we shouldn't be using this, and we should treat it as a hazardous material."
Peaslee called it a terribly complicated question for the Veterans Administration and the International Association of Firefighters.
"I'd be willing to bet that there's going to be plenty there; this is a dangerous class of chemicals, but we don't whether this particular cancer was caused by that particular exposure at the moment--and that's the most frustrating for the firefighters--you've got to feel their pain because they're searching for why there are so many of these diseases going around, and here's a compound that gets into their blood, and nobody is sure exactly all of the things that it does," he said.
Doug Stern with the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) said they're aware of the Notre Dame study and have contracted with the University of Oregon to conduct their own study.
"So we can replicate the study--to show that it's a problem--because once we replicate it, then we know that it's a problem, and we can start finding solutions that provide firefighters that thermal protection at the same time protecting them from cancer exposures," Stern told WDEL.
While the IAFF could not make researchers from the University of Oregon available to speak for this story, Stern said the results of that study are due any day now.
Peaslee said now that the dangers are recognized on a wider scale, work is underway to replace these chemicals.
"For 60 years, we never researched an alternative, because we didn't need to--these chemicals were a miracle--now we understand the chemical never goes away and is not so miraculous," he said. "There's a lot of effort going in the last few years of getting a fluorine-free foam that works, and there's a company in Europe now that they have one, I don't know if it's true, I don't know if it will pass...in the U.S., but certainly the fact that people are trying again bodes well for the fact that we can replace these in a few years, and that would be a really big step."
Congress is seeking to ban PFAS and related chemicals in firefighting foam by 2023. A similar measure in the House calls for a ban in 2025.
"My hope is that we can actually beat those deadlines by a good deal," said Carper."
But the damage these chemicals may have caused is done. If a link is found between cancers and other health disorders experienced by military firefighters, this crisis for the Department of Defense, could be likened to Agent Orange during the Vietnam era.
"For a long time people kind of ignored [Agent Orange], in the VA, and maybe, the Congress, and the administration," said Carper. "This may be a similar situation as what we went through with Agent Orange, and it took us awhile to get it straight on Agent Orange, and my guess is it's going to take a little while with the so-called PFAS chemicals."
"This one has potential for chronic health effects that we didn't know about, and it's going to be much harder to prove than Agent Orange," said Peaslee. "We know that [the Department of Defense] wasn't very quick to respond to Agent Orange. Have they learned? I don't know."