Per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, collectively known as PFAS, are getting a lot of press lately. (Learn more about PFAS and how they impact fire protection). While these pervasive chemicals have been around for decades, experts have realized that these chemicals present some significant negative health effects to both humans and the environment. 

Unfortunately, as we learn more about the “forever chemicals” it’s becoming clear that the fire protection industry has a significant part to play here. While much is happening in the industry, it’s important to understand where the United States currently stands with legislation against PFAS, and how those in the fire protection industry can comply. 

One important piece of legislation to be aware of when it comes to restricting the effects of PFAS is the PFAS Action Act of 2021. 

What’s the PFAS Action Act of 2021?

The PFAS Action Act of 2021 is a bill that is attempting to further limit the use of perfluoroalkyl and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, often referred to as PFAS. The main goal of the PFAS Action Act is to minimize future PFAS contamination and to remediate the contamination that already exists in our everyday environments. 

If passed, the PFAS Action Act of 2021 would help to:

  • Reduce PFAS environmental contamination. The bill will require:
    • Cleanup of sites contaminated with PFOA and PFOS
    • Establishment of air emission limits
    • Prohibition of unsafe incineration of PFAS
    • Limitations on the ability to introduce new PFAS chemicals into commerce
  • Identify the health risks that PFAS presents to consumers by:
    • Requiring health testing for all PFAS
    • Reporting any PFAS releases
    • Instating increased monitoring of PFAS in drinking water
  • Inform communities of the risks of PFAS by:
    • Requiring that the EPA Administrator develop a risk-communication strategy that identifies and explains the risks PFAS present
    • Establishing an informational website that makes public the information regarding PFAS and provides information about testing of household well water
  • Minimize human exposure to PFAS by:
    • Requiring new drinking water standards for PFAS
    • Developing drinking standards that protect the public health, as well as vulnerable subpopulations
    • New drinking water standards would also require the establishment of consequences for which polluters would be held accountable
  • Improve the public’s ability to avoid further PFAS contamination through:
    • Grants for impacted water systems
    • Voluntary labels for cookware that is PFAS free
    • Guidance for first responders to limit their exposure
    • Requirements for effluent limitations
    • Pretreatment standards for PFAS introduction or PFAS. 

The PFAS Action Act of 2021 is certainly the most comprehensive of its kind. Not only does it attempt to minimize future PFAS contamination, but it is taking sweeping steps to reduce health risks and better inform the public on the subject. 

The PFAS Action Act of 2021 passed the House in July of 2021 and is pending in the Senate before the Committee on the Environment and Public Works. 

How Would the PFAS Action Act Impact Firefighting?

If passed, it’s still largely unclear how exactly the PFAS Action Act would impact firefighting. Based on what the bill covers, though, there are a few concrete takeaways:

  • Emergency responders should receive more training & education surrounding the potential health risks associated with PFAS, as well as how to protect themselves from these chemicals. 
  • It’s likely that guidance would be established providing more prescriptive direction regarding how fire protection systems and fire protection professionals could transition away from substances known to contain PFAS, like AFFF. 

Would the PFAS Action Act Ban AFFF?

As it is structured now, the PFAS Action Act of 2021 itself would not necessarily ban aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) outright. 

First, the EPA would be required to do a great deal of research and testing to be able to establish the limits and regulations that the Act is requesting. 

Only after those regulations and restrictions were set in place would the firefighting industry know for sure whether AFFF would be banned by the PFAS Action Act of 2021. 

But, it’s important to remember that the PFAS Action Act is just one piece of legislation, and there are experts across the country working to develop and implement legislation that will keep communities safe from harmful chemicals like PFAS. Some of this legislation, at the state, county, and even city and town level, is already having an impact on the firefighting industry. 

What Other PFAS Legislation is Affecting the Firefighting Industry?

As experts gain a better understanding of PFAS and the adverse effects they can present to human and environmental health, legislation across the nation is starting to impact the firefighting industry. Again, much of this legislation is at the state level, so it’s difficult to describe every single bill, ban, and restriction, but most of these changes do fall into four main categories:

Restricting discharge or use of AFFF

Because aqueous film-forming foam is one of the single largest contributors of environmental PFAS contamination, many states are regulating when and how AFFF may be used. In most cases, regulations prohibit the use of AFFF in training exercises, though firefighters are still allowed to use AFFF in active firefighting situations. (If your facility requires AFFF, learn how to safely store PFAS-containing foams.)

AFFF “Buy-Back” Programs

Another way that states are working to reduce the amount of PFAS contaminating local environments is by promoting AFFF “buy-back” programs. These programs are designed to help government agencies and large commercial facilities that require firefighting foam for fire hazard protection switch from AFFF to fluorine-free foam or other, PFAS-free firefighting alternatives

In most cases, these buy-back programs offer a reasonable sum for the state to carefully remove and dispose of AFFF for facilities and agencies ready to move on from AFFF. 

Notification and Reporting Requirements

Because most states do still allow the use of AFFF in active firefighting situations, new legislation is requiring that businesses report specific details regarding their discharge. This helps the state and local government understand where to focus cleanup efforts, when appropriate. 

Limiting The Use of PPE Containing PFAS

The fourth, and final common area of legislation against PFAS is the limitation or prohibition of PPE for firefighters that contains PFAS. This helps to reduce the introduction of new PFAS chemicals into the environment and helps keep firefighters safe from the chemicals. Given recent technological advancements, there are new options that protect firefighters, without introducing PFAS. 

PFAS Legislation is Forcing Positive Change. Vanguard Industrial Fire Protection Can Help.

PFAS legislation is forcing positive change, but all change takes some getting used to. If you’re worried about how your facility can safely adjust to some of these existing or upcoming restrictions, the Vanguard Industrial Fire Protection team is here to help. We work with industrial facilities, government agencies, and more to help you make the switch to PFAS-free fire protection, safely. For more information, check out our blog about Firefighting Foam & PFAS, or get in touch with our team online today!

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