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South Metro Fire Rescue first in Colorado to invest in new "eco-friendly" foam to fight jet fuel fires as part of "cancer prevention" initiative

South Metro Fire Rescue stops using foams containing PFAs for jet fuel fires
South Metro Fire Rescue stops using foams containing PFAs for jet fuel fires 03:45

Firefighters across Colorado protect people from devastating fires, but the materials sometimes used to put out the flames could hurt the very communities they're saving. Those materials we're talking about are certain kinds of firefighting foams containing toxic PFAS, also known as "forever chemicals," because they don't readily break down in the environment. 

PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. There are dozens of chemicals under the PFAS umbrella, and they are commonly used in all sorts of household and industrial products. Emerging research has found PFAS are harmful to human health, and can cause a variety of health problems, including birth defects and cancer. 

Since the 1970s, firefighting foams containing PFAS have been the gold standard for fighting jet fuel fires nationwide.  South Metro Fire Rescue

Across the country, PFAS foam is widely used to fight what is labeled as "Class B" fires, which include gasoline and other fires involving highly flammable and combustible liquids. The foams are frequently used at airports and military bases, because of their durability, and their unique ability to suffocate the powerful jet fuel-fueled flames on which they're thrown. 

The problem: when these foams are deployed, they can sometimes seep into nearby water tables underground and contaminate local drinking water supplies. 

For example, the U.S. Air Force paid $9 million for the city of Fountain to build a new PFAS water treatment facility after past military activities nearby polluted the city's drinking water, which some people claimed made them sick. 

Read about the new facility in Fountain by clicking here. 

For the last three years, the South Metro Fire Rescue in Arapahoe County has been working on a strategy to fight fires at the Centennial Airport without using the PFAS foams, and now the department's plans are coming to fruition, making SMFR the first fire district to utilize an alternative foam for airport fire support in the state. 

According to an invoice provided by SMFR, the city has paid a little more than $107,000 for a new alternative foam that is PFAS-free. 

SMFR's division chief of line operations Scott Richardson says it will cost an additional $200,000 to remove the old PFAS foam from its apparatuses at the airport and dispose of the foams appropriately, which should take place by the end of the year. 

While Colorado has a PFAS takeback program to help fire districts with removal costs, Richardson says participating in that program wasn't the best path forward. 

"We looked into the possibility of participating in this program; however, participation requires that we store the foam in our facilities within SMFRs District until a disposal plan from the State is implemented," Richardson said. "Our leadership team felt that the risk of continuing to store the foam for an indefinite timeframe would create an additional hazardous situation to our employees and citizens. Additionally, this program also does not include the necessary remediation of the ARFF apparatus and equipment, which is a large share of the total expense."

Richardson says the costs will be worth it, to help prevent toxic runoff pollution and protect his crews.

"We take cancer prevention very seriously," Richardson said while standing in front of a memorial outside of SMFR's headquarters in Centennial. "The memorial behind us has some names of people in our organization that have died of cancer. So, we want to look at every facet of our organization and make sure that we are as healthy as possible."

PFAS firefighting foam storage and use in Colorado and nationwide: State data shows decrease in PFAS foam use, but the damage may already have been done

Nationwide, fire departments have used PFAS foams to fight jet fuel fires since the 1970s.

To this day, military bases across the US continue to use the toxic foams, but federal documents show the military has issued a mandate to eventually start phasing them out this year. 

In 2023, the Department of Defense listed 715 military installations across the country that are conducting potential PFAS assessments and cleanups. In Colorado, Federal records show PFAS testing occurred as recently as April 2024 and February 2024 at both the Peterson and Shriever Space Force Bases, respectively, where higher levels of some PFAS compounds have been found.  

According to a spokesperson with the Buckley Space Force Base in Arapahoe County, they will be switching over to PFAS-free foam in one week. 

"Our fire department on base is finalizing the switch from Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) to Synthetic Fluorine Free Foam (SFFF). The change is expected to be final next week. Because SFFF does not contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, the foam doesn't pose any threat to the environment surrounding Buckley or the health and wellbeing of the community," the Buckley spokesperson said. "With the switch to SFFF being recent, Buckley Space Force Base has ensured training measures and education are being provided regularly to allow proper use and efficient extinguishment of fires on and off base."

Also in Colorado, state records show nearly 200 fire districts and other industrial businesses in the Centennial State are registered as storing thousands of gallons of PFAS foam for class B fires, with 12 of those facilities registered as testing the toxic foams, a practice state law now limits. 

According to a CBS News Colorado analysis of state health department surveys of more than 70 fire districts in Colorado in 2020 and 2023, many fire departments are starting to phase out their use of foams containing PFAS. Nineteen fire districts reported using the foams for incident responses and other reasons in 2020, but in 2023, only eight departments reported having used the foams. 

In the 2020 state survey, 12 departments admitted to simply leaving the PFAS foam on the ground after using it, and not cleaning it up.

PFAS firefighting foam isn't the only reason for contamination. It's in all sorts of household products, makeup, and waterproof clothing.

According to a CDC study, about 97% of Americans have some level of PFAS in their blood. In 2022, CBS News Colorado collaborated with an Arvada-based laboratory to test the blood of different residents and firefighters in the Denver metro area. Click here to see that story, and the results that were discovered. 

Due to years of PFAS pollution runoff from a variety of sources, many Colorado public drinking water systems have been impacted. 

For the last three years, the South Metro Fire Rescue in Arapahoe County has been working on a strategy to fight fires at the Centennial Airport without using the PFAS foams. South Metro Fire Rescue

In the 2020 state survey of fire departments, the state estimated that the use of PFAS firefighting foams has contaminated the drinking water of over 100,000 Coloradans.

Water utilities across the country and in Colorado are now grappling with how to remove them from their drinking water supplies, to keep people safe, after the EPA imposed new regulations this year, that limit levels of some PFAS compounds in drinking water. 

For example, in the city of Thornton, it will cost more than $80 million for the city to build a new water treatment process specifically designed to remove PFAS from its drinking water supplies.

Read our coverage about the city's plans for future PFAS mitigation by clicking here. 

Are PFAS-free foam alternatives as effective as their predecessors? SMFR says "yes," but it takes "twice as much foam to accomplish the same task."

According to a Department of Defense memo issued in 2023, part of the delay in utilizing an alternative foam on military sites was due to the lack of an effective alternative product on the market. 

But Richardson says the PFAS-free foam that South Metro Fire Rescue has purchased meets military standards, something that's considered a groundbreaking industry achievement within the last year, as agencies have worked to find the right solutions

While SMFR's new foam is considered military-grade, Richardson admits it's still not as durable as the old foam made of PFAS. 

"If you look at Gillette foam, shaving foam, that's how the old foam blanket used to look, and now when you look at it, it's kind of like a latte that's been sitting for a while and the bubbles have evaporated, so, it's much easier for flames to get through it," Richardson said. "This is a completely different technique for applying it, and that's really the biggest issue for us."

Richardson says his crews have been training with the new foam, learning the proper application techniques to make it most effective.

Asked if he's confident the new, PFAS-free foam can work just as well as its older counterpart, Richardson said, "I am."

"We've engaged a lot of collaborative partners and some of the larger airports, specifically Dallas, and we were able to realize through some of their training and some of the training we've done ourselves, there is an effective way to utilize this foam, but the application methods and the duration that the foam lasts are markedly different," Richardson said. "So, we've had to order twice as much foam to accomplish the same task, and to make sure that our responders are set up for success."


While Richardson says fires don't happen often at the Centennial Airport, his department is properly prepared to utilize the new foam in case of an emergency in the near future, but Richardson says, the old foam may still be used if lives are in imminent danger. 

"We recently purchased two new air crash apparatuses, last year, and those are full fluorine-free foam, they have 200 gallons of foam in them. That's where we would start. By FAA and federal mandate, the only time we can use AFFF, or foam with fluorine in it, is when there's a known life safety hazard, so if there were people in the cockpit of an airplane, then we could use the AFFF, but that would all have to be mitigated and dug out," Richardson says. 

Richardson says his department is also working to phase out the protective gear made of PFAS that firefighters wear.

"The International Association of Firefighters and the International Association of Fire Chiefs have partnered together to work with the NFPA and underwriters' laboratories to try and find a PFAS-free alternative for the last part of our turnout gear, which is the moisture barrier inside," Richardson explained. "The trade-off, unfortunately, is that gear is much hotter when we wear it, so we're actually in the process in the next month of doing a side-by-side comparison, because there's the trade-off between the PFAS-free, and not cooking our firefighters in a fire environment."

Once they find the right material, Richardson hopes to replace the gear within the next year or two.

"We're very fortunate our board of directors understands the importance of it, the Centennial Airport understands the importance of it, and they've been a huge partner in this whole thing to be able to make this happen," Richardson said. 

The Centennial Airport says the transition to PFAS-free foams is an "eco-friendly and significant step towards reducing harmful chemicals in our environment," which was made possible by joint funding from South Metro Fire Rescue and the Arapahoe County Public Airport Authority.

In Arvada last week, a tragic small plane crash claimed the life of a Parker woman. The pilot and two children on board were critically injured. Arvada Fire says it did not use PFAS foam to fight the flames during that incident, and that overall, the department has phased out its use of PFAS foams, but Arvada Fire does not have an airport in its jurisdiction of service.

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