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Connecticut Plane Crash Sparks Toxicity Fears Over Firefighting Foam


When a World War II-era bomber crashed and caught fire in Connecticut last month, first responders fought the blaze with a special foam. It's required by the Federal Aviation Administration for its effectiveness against fuel fires. But the Environmental Protection Agency says there's evidence some chemicals in those foams are toxic to humans and the environment. Patrick Skahill from Connecticut Public Radio reports that last month's crash highlights the conflicting messages from both agencies, and that creates confusion for airports and communities caught in the middle.

PATRICK SKAHILL, BYLINE: Christopher Albani was at home when he heard the call that a B-17 crashed at Bradley International Airport. He's a firefighter, one of several who responded to the scene. Albani was put on a hose line dumping firefighting foam onto burning wreckage.

CHRISTOPHER ALBANI: So in that moment, being exposed to it, I mean, guys were covered head to toe in the stuff.

SKAHILL: Firefighters doused the flames using a special material called aqueous film forming foam or AFFF. It smothers hot burning fires, extinguishing flames better than just water. At the time, Albani says first responders didn't have time to think about its health risks.

ALBANI: You had a plane crash, you had fatalities, you had people injured, you had a lot of fire - there was no option. It had to be used.

SKAHILL: AFFF contains PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances substances, a family of thousands of chemicals found in everything from nonstick cookware to firefighting foam. Cheryl Fields, a toxicologist with the State Department of Public Health, says today's PFAS chemicals are already in virtually everyone's blood. And an emerging body of science now links some of these common chemicals to bad health effects.

CHERYL FIELDS: The most sensitive of those effects appear to be liver effects. There are immune system effects and developmental effects.

SKAHILL: Kevin Dillon is executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, which oversees Bradley. He's concerned about potential health issues but says even if you wanted to get rid of the foam, federal law says he can't.

KEVIN DILLON: If we want to continue to operate Bradley Airport, under our FAA certification, we have to utilize this foam. We have to have this foam in our firefighting equipment.

SKAHILL: Dillon says commercial airports across the country are trying to come to grips with what to do with this mandated foam. But...

DILLON: We're airport operators. We're not chemical experts. And we have to rely on the science that's provided to us and to the FAA that will determine, yes, this truly is a hazardous substance. Right now, the fact that the EPA has not declared it a hazardous substance puts even the FAA, I think, in a difficult position.

SKAHILL: The EPA is considering listening two PFAS compounds - PFOA and PFOS, as hazardous substances. That listing hasn't happened. Policy and science can both be slow. Meanwhile, firefighter Christopher Albani says the PFAS-containing foam is used because it's effective. But he worries about its risks.

ALBANI: We don't want it to get into the environment. We know the effects of it. And we try to use it for just really emergency operations only.

SKAHILL: The FAA says commercial airports should no longer use these foams for testing or training and that it's actively working to begin phasing them out at commercial airports by October 2021. It's also working on a replacement foam at its testing facility in New Jersey. For NPR News, I'm Patrick Skahill in Hartford. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Patrick Skahill