Fire Retardants Dropped Because They Pollute Groundwater

Zafrir Rinat
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Flame retardants are used to put out a forest fire near Jerusalem, last month
Flame retardants are used to put out a forest fire near Jerusalem, last monthCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Zafrir Rinat

The Israel Fire and Rescue Authority recently stopped using fire retardant foam that contains two toxic substances from the PFAS family – chemicals based on fluorine and carbon compounds – out of concern that these chemicals will seep into the groundwater. A few months ago the Health Ministry discovered for the first time a drinking water source that had been polluted by these chemicals, located in the Haifa Bay suburbs. It is assumed that the pollution stems from the use of this fire-retardant foam at a fuel storage facility in the area.

PFAS chemicals are commonly used as flame retardants, but as also used textiles, cookware and other products. They have come under scrutiny by health organizations and scientists because of their widespread use and because they do not break down for many years; they have been dubbed the “forever chemicals.” Exposure to them can damage the immune system, harm fetal development and increase the risk of cancer.

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At a conference last month, the fire service official in charge of dangerous substances, Ashi Avizemer, said the authority stopped using the two foams only after it was able to obtain replacement foam that was more environmentally friendly. This new foam is more expensive, however.

The conference was held at the Oil and Energy Sciences School in Tel Aviv, and surveyed the latest developments in coping with PFAS pollution in Israel. Water Authority official Dr. Chaim Katz noted the authority’s studies show that ground water is being harmed not just by using the foam in actual firefighting, but even for firefighting drills of the type routinely conducted at fuel and industrial facilities. Both authorities are recommending that industrial installations also begin using a different type of foam.

There are currently no standards in Israel for the maximum allowable concentration of PFAS in drinking water. Moreover, the Standards Institution is only now formulating a standard for firefighting foam that will also include toxicity levels, including a ban on the use of two PFAS compounds and a restriction on the concentration of another.

Governments and health agencies around the world plan to the examine the use of PFAS in other products, like textiles and cookware, after these substances were found in blood samples of citizens in several countries. Last year the Health Ministry conducted a small test, taking blood samples from 20 volunteers. Low concentrations of two PFAS compounds were detected in all the volunteers.

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