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News 4 San Antonio: DOD testing for PFAS in water, but not screening firefighters

November 26, 2019

SAN ANTONIO — The Department of Defense has known the firefighting foam used to extinguish jet fuel fires was bad for the environment for the last few years.

This knowledge and an EPA advisory prompted water testing on military bases and installations nationwide, but a local firefighter expressed concerned because they've yet to begin screening firefighters.

An Air Force firefighter reached out to News 4 San Antonio after seeing a Trouble Shooters investigation into the aqueous film forming foam that contaminated both ground water and drinking water.

"We always touched the foam;" Albert said. "It gets all over you."

He recalls dozens of training exercises over the years where first responders used the foam to practice putting out fires.

"We would take the hand lines off the trucks and walk through the foam and through the fuel," Albert said.

He recalls having direct contact with the AFFF in his eyes, nose, ears and mouth, more times than he can count.

In 2015, the EPA issued a health advisory for drinking water contamination limits after finding suggestive evidence the PFAS chemicals in this fire-fighting foam may cause cancer.

The DOD no longer uses the foam for training exercises, rather only for emergencies.

"It's all about the drinking water," Albert said. "It has never been about us as individuals or humans that we've been exposed to this stuff."

While first responders were required to wear head to toe protective gear anytime they came into contact with the foam, Albert said he was never informed of any specific health risks.

The DOD is actively researching fluorine-free alternatives and they've tested both drinking and groundwater on bases nationwide, but they haven't begun screening firefighters specifically for PFAS.

"Without getting our firefighters tested, we won't have the data bank necessary to know exactly what exposure is too much and what exposure may be associated with dread diseases," said District 35 Congressman Lloyd Doggett.

DOD spokesman, Chuck Prichard sent this statement:

"It is Department of Defense policy that DoD firefighters receive an annual occupational medical surveillance examination due to the hazardous nature of their work. The examination includes a health history, workplace exposure summary, and laboratory tests if indicated. In addition to the annual examination, firefighters are evaluated and/or treated as necessary for medical conditions and concerns that arise during the course of the year. If the healthcare provider determines the presence of a medical condition, action is taken to address the firefighter's health and to mitigate workplace issues contributing to the condition. At this time, there is no requirement for the medical exams to include testing for Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), some of which are present in AFFF, specifically PFOS and PFOA. The CDC does not recommend PFAS blood testing for anyone at this time because the results have no clinical value for diagnosis and/or treatment. We cannot speculate about what future legislation may require. But if PFAS tests are mandated for firefighters, DoD will comply."

"Let's get the information we need now to know if they need some treatment to try to prevent illness as a result of them trying to do their professional job," Doggett said.

Congressman Doggett is one of dozens of lawmakers who is hoping the PFAS provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020 will be passed.

He's in support of funding for a fluorine free replacement for AFFF, clean up and monitoring military firefighters' health through testing.