Wisconsin lawmakers should quickly approve a bill to regulate the use of hazardous chemicals in firefighting. Those limits, as well as better data and environmental standards, are needed to protect people’s health.
It’s easy to get the public and regulators fired up about smoke that people can see or chemical emissions they can smell. It’s much harder when the dangerous substance is invisible yet almost everywhere, as PFAS are.
PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) are products of mid-20th century chemical engineering. They show up in water-repellent fabrics, nonstick cookware, paints, firefighting foams and more.
What the chemists might not have realized all those decades ago is that PFAS don’t go away. They linger in the environment. Over the years, they’ve seeped into groundwater and soil and have entered the food chain, accumulating in animals and humans.
The bill would limit where firefighters and others could test or train with foams containing highly fluorinated compounds known as PFAS.
And they aren’t good for us. The Environmental Protection Agency notes evidence that PFAS can have adverse effects on reproductive, developmental and immunological systems as well as to livers and kidneys. They can cause tumors, increased cholesterol and even cancer.
Like with most hazardous chemicals that harm health, PFAS don’t guarantee bad outcomes, but the odds are higher in any person exposed to them.
Industries have voluntarily phased out the use of some PFAS, but others remain in common use, most notably in firefighting foams that typically wind up washed away into the surrounding environment.
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PFAS are at high levels in some local water already. The Madison Water Utility recently and wisely shut down an East Side well because of contamination. The utility will only draw water from that source in an emergency.
Senate Bill 310 and Assembly Bill 323 would limit use of firefighting foam with PFAS to emergencies and testing areas that have containment and disposal systems certified by the state Department of Natural Resources. In other words, no more flushing the stuff into the sewer where it winds up in the groundwater and rivers.
The bills have bipartisan support, including from prominent Republican sponsors and Madison Democratic Rep. Melissa Sargent. Environmental groups also support the measures. Though some wish they went further, they acknowledge this is a good first step.
Well 15 on East Washington Avenue was turned off in March after voluntary testing revealed elevated levels of highly flourinated compounds known as PFAS.
Meanwhile, Gov. Tony Evers has asked the DNR to begin the multi-year process of collecting data and developing administrative rules for how much PFAS in water supplies and other places is safe. That makes a lot of sense, too.
State officials can and should take reasonable steps to mitigate public health risks, based on sound science and medical research. Limiting firefighting foam is just the start.