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For Military, PFAS in Firefighting Foam Pose New Threat

Now that they know they are at risk from exposure to PFAS, military firefighters at the more than 700 active and former military installations that have been polluted by AFFF are wondering what to do now.

Like their civilian counterparts, U.S. military firefighters are up against a new enemy. From right in their own backyards comes a relatively hidden but potentially deadly foe: aqueous film forming foam (AFFF). It’s a highly effective fire suppressant that contains PFAS chemicals — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also called “forever chemicals” —which are known to be harmful to humans.

“It’s kind of like a Russian roulette,” said Kurt Rhodes, a U.S. military firefighter for 32 years where he has routinely fought fires with the use of AFFF, without the knowledge he has now. “Are you going to get cancers or are you going to be one of the lucky ones who doesn’t?” he asked when interviewed by KFF Health News.

Now that they know they are at risk, many of the military firefighters among those exposed at the more than 700 active and former military installations that have been polluted by AFFFs are wondering what to do. “It’s stressful, especially when you know there is a chance of cancer,” said former Air National Guard firefighter Jeffrey Warrick, who also noted that he believes his skin condition, which acts up in warm weather, was caused by exposure to PFAS.

Many of the firefighters are undergoing the new blood serum tests that detect their cumulative levels of PFAS. But what then? Doctors are unclear about what to do with results of the tests as there are no treatments to remove the chemicals from the body.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine issued a guide for those whose results confirm a certain level of PFAS chemicals. The recommendation is basically further assessment and finding a doctor with some experience with the chemicals.

Former Air Force firefighter Kevin Ferrara said firefighters want their doctors to be more educated on PFAS and the health consequences. “Firefighters really need to concentrate on their jobs, not, ‘How do I decipher my blood test?,”’ he said. “Physicians should have a basic understanding of PFAS, and they simply don’t.”