Fairbanks airfields convert to alternative firefighting foam over contamination concerns

Emergency-service officials at Fairbanks International Airport, Eielson Air Force Base no longer train with firefighting foam containing PFAS. Fort Wainwright also have all taken measures to respond to infiltrating and contaminating groundwater around Fairbanks. (KUAC file photo)

Fairbanks International Airport and Eielson Air Force Base no longer use a type of firefighting foam containing a chemical compound that’s contaminated groundwater around the city, and that poses a potential threat to human health.

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When Fairbanks International emergency personnel conducted their annual firefighting training exercise last week, they did not use a type of fire-suppressing foam that contains PFAS. That’s the abbreviation for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, the chemical compounds that have contaminated groundwater in at least two areas around Fairbanks.

“Back in November, the airport procured the newest foam that’s out there, and basically, the difference is it doesn’t have PFAS and PFOA,” Airport spokeswoman Sammy Loud said.

Loud says instead of PFAS and its chemical cousin, PFOA, the airport now uses a type of fire-suppressing foam that’s known as Phos-Chek. That’s a variant of the fire-suppressing slurry that’s dropped from aircraft onto wildfires. Loud says the Phos-Chek is safer than PFAS because it’s formulated in a way that doesn’t allow it to be absorbed into the environment as easily as PFAS.

“It can’t break down into other compounds that can be harmful,” Loud said.

PFAS and related chemical compounds have been linked to cancer, autoimmune disorders and other threats to human health. Loud says that’s why Fairbanks International stopped using PFAS last fall, after testing showed it had infiltrated groundwater around the airport after years of use. Loud says the Phos-Chek does, however, contain chemical compounds related to PFAS.

“It doesn’t have PFOS and PFOA in it, but it does have other PFAS compounds that aren’t regulated. But it’s the safer of the options that we have at this time that’s we’re allowed to use,” Loud said.

Eielson Air Force Base, where PFAS was first discovered, also has discontinued use of foam containing PFAS. A base spokesperson says emergency personnel there have removed foam with PFOS and PFOA from all fire-response vehicles and replaced it with a high expansion foam that does not contain PFOS or PFOA. The spokesperson said in an e-mail that Eielson is in the process of renovating fire-suppression systems in all hangars at the base to use the new type of foam.

A Fort Wainwright spokesperson could not confirm Friday whether post officials have discontinued use of PFAS at Ladd Army Airfield. Samples of groundwater around Wainwright have shown the presence of PFAS, and more testing is scheduled. Post officials are working to acquire a type of system that will not allow fire-suppressing foam used during training to escape into the environment.

Loud says officials at Fairbanks International also are considering ways to contain fire-fighting foam used for training.

“We are researching different options for the future to have an even more secure containment system for when we foam-test each year,” Loud said.

Loud says foam with PFAS has been used in years past at the burn pit that airport emergency personnel used for the May 30th firefighting training exercise. She says airport officials hope to have a new system in place for next year’s exercise that will contain any type of foam used in training.