State moves toward phaseout of firefighting foam with harmful ‘forever chemicals’

Gov. Pritzker signed into law a measure that aims to reduce the use of foam containing PFAS, which have been tied to drinking water contamination and health threats.

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A foam used to extinguish industrial fires will be limited in its use in Illinois because of the concern over the chemicals that can contaminate drinking water.

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Illinois will take a first step toward reducing the use of firefighting foam containing harmful “forever chemicals” under a bill signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker Friday.

The measure aims to curb the use of one source of PFAS chemicals that are tied to a host of health threats, largely through a limitation on using the foam for anything other than emergencies. Fire departments that want to conduct emergency drills or test the foam have to take precautions that prevent the chemicals from reaching waterways through sewer systems, for instance.

The bill, a compromise between environmental groups, an association of fire chiefs and industry groups, does not restrict any use in an emergency. The foam is used for serious industrial fires like those that can occur at a refinery, chemical plant or another source of flammable liquids.

Separately, state officials found more than 100 drinking water systems across Illinois with some PFAS contamination, the Sun-Times recently reported. The chemicals are used in a number of products, from stain-resistant clothing to non-stick pans.

Environmentalists called the reduction a first step.

“This new law is a foothold in moving Illinois in the right direction on one of the most frightening threats to our clean water,” Iyana Simba, city programs director at the Illinois Environmental Council said in an emailed statement.

Business groups originally opposed the bill, saying deadlines initially proposed would phase out an effective product before a comparable one was created, said Mark Denzler, chief executive of the Illinois Manufacturers Association.

Local fire departments used to train often with PFAS foam but began using alternatives for those drills largely because of the cost of using the specialty foam on anything other than a true disaster, said John Buckley, who works on legislative issues for the Illinois Fire Chief Association.

In addition to limiting the foam’s use in training exercises, departments will be required to report to the state any discharge or disposal of the product.

A Chicago Fire Department spokesman said he wasn’t able to quantify how much foam the city uses or stockpiles but said the department will adhere to the required documentation.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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