New guidebook helps airports: Environmental risk of firefighting foam
The Airport Cooperative Research Program recently released a guidebook to help airports address potential environmental and health impacts of aqueous film forming foams used by their fire departments. Mead & Hunt brought our expertise in aircraft rescue and firefighting operations and airport environmental programs to the team that developed Report 173: Use and Potential Impacts of AFFF Containing PFASs at Airports.
What are AFFF and PFAS and why are they significant?
Aqueous film forming foam is used by fire departments to fight petroleum-based fires. A class of chemicals known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are key in the effectiveness of AFFF and its ability to meet U.S. military standards and Federal Aviation Administration performance standards.
Unfortunately, PFOS and PFOA (forms of PFAS) have significant negative human health and environmental risks. Most western nations, including the United States, have banned the manufacture of these substances and phased out their use. Additionally, these countries have begun developing advisory and regulatory concentration limits for these chemicals in drinking water, groundwater and other environmental media.
New generation AFFF products without PFOS and PFOA have entered the market. These new products contain PFAS, but in forms that have not been implicated with significant health or ecological risks.
What airport operators need to know
Airports face tough challenges regarding these developments.
One of the characteristics of PFAS is that the chemicals don’t break down readily. This means past firefighting, training, equipment maintenance and storage practices may have left legacy contamination, which presents several issues.
Soils may be heavily contaminated at old fire training sites, and that contamination may migrate to groundwater and beyond. Contamination may affect the cost and complexity of future airport development projects in these areas. Decontamination of fire trucks and hangar deluge systems requires aggressive measures to get concentrations in rinse water below advisory levels. Finally, unused stocks of the old AFFF formulations present a risk that may require special handling and disposal.
Although the new formulations are environmentally much better, they still must be managed through operational and structural best practices.
These challenges can be overwhelming to airport staff who may be unfamiliar with the topics.
Report 173 is here to help
Report 173 was designed to educate airport staff and their consultants about AFFF issues, and provide them with practical guidance. The spreadsheet-based screening tool included in the report is particularly valuable in this regard. It helps airports identify areas of potential environmental concern associated with historical or current PFAS use, and plan appropriate best management practices.
There’s no question this is a complex and evolving topic. If you have questions on AFFFs, PFASs or any other environmental concerns at your airport, please reach out to me. I’m proud to have been part of the project team that developed this valuable resource, and happy to share this knowledge with the aviation community.
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