Technology seeks to save firefighters from “forever chemicals”

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Waxhaw, North Carolina — For America’s firefighters, the irony is jarring. Chemical foam that they’ve sprayed on fires for decades to protect others was a hidden threat to them. 

The foam concentrate comes in five-gallon buckets, laced with polyfluoroalkyl substances — also called PFAS — which are man-made chemicals that are water-repellent, virtually indestructible and dangerous if inhaled or absorbed into the body. 

The Environmental Protection Agency limits the safe threshold for exposure to two of the most common PFAS (PFOA and PFOS) to nearly zero, or less than one part per trillion. But firefighting foam, known as AFFF, contains concentrations of 10 million parts per trillion — more than a thousand times higher than EPA guidance — according to Amy Dindal, PFAS program manager for Battelle, a scientific nonprofit that has developed promising technology to eliminate the problem. 

In North Carolina, the nonprofit is treating the Waxhaw Volunteer Fire Department’s foam stockpile, some of which fire chief Gregory Sharpe estimates may be 20 years old. 

In its first commercial application, Battelle’s technology uses a process called supercritical water oxidation, which involves heat, pressure and an oxidant to remove the threat in the PFAS carbon-fluorine bond. 

“Ten seconds through our reactor, it will break the CF bond,” Dindal said. 

Waxhaw’s crews are also testing “clean” firefighting foam, made of organics. GreenFire, the manufacturer, says it’s non-toxic and PFAS-free. The company has been collecting AFFF foam from fire departments across North Carolina in an effort destroy the PFAS in their stockpile with the new technology.

“I don’t want to get cancer and I don’t want my folks to get cancer,” Sharpe said. 

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