Will PFAS Burn?

North Carolina has suffered from some of the worst PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances) contamination in the country. We’ve seen the effects it has on our communities and on our citizens. The PFAS problem continues to grow. 

Krista Early

North Carolina has suffered from some of the worst PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances) contamination in the country. We’ve seen the effects it has on our communities and on our citizens. Our waterways like the Neuse River, the Cape Fear River and Jordan Lake are contaminated with these toxic chemicals. PFAS chemicals are toxic and have been linked to multiple health problems including impaired immune systems, fertility problems, and multiple types of cancer. 

A lot of the pollution comes directly from chemical plants, like the Chemours facility near Fayetteville. They have been dumping toxic pollution into our rivers for over a decade now. As a result, Fayetteville and the surrounding counties along the Cape Fear River have seen high levels of these chemicals in their drinking waters. But direct dumping is the not only way these chemicals spread. PFAS chemicals are in the nonstick surfaces of pans, they are used in food wrappers, carpets and rain and weather gear. They can also be found in fire fighting foam, or AFFF. 

Clean Water Action states that “Aqueous Film Forming Foams (AFFF) are synthetic PFAS-containing foams designed for flammable liquid fires, also called Class B fires. The PFAS serve as surfactants that spread the foam to cool and suppress the fire.” AFFF is very effective against liquid fires which is why it is used by the Department of Defense, many airports and many firefighters. Unfortunately, the PFAS chemicals in AFFF are also dangerous. There are both environmental and health hazards that come with the use of these chemicals.  These long-chain chemicals don’t break down which means they will remain in the environment and bioaccumulate in our bodies. They can be transmitted by air and can seep into our groundwater, ultimately affecting our drinking water. Long-term exposure, through direct contact in our water, can lead to serious health threats like an increased risk of thyroid disease and testicular, kidney and bladder cancers among other concerns.

There have been some positive steps to address this at the national level. In December of last year, the president signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2020 into law, which includes a bipartisan measure that requires the Pentagon to stop using PFAS-containing firefighting foams by 2024. According to Environment America, “by ending the use of toxic PFAS on military bases, Congress is taking a significant step to prevent further episodes of drinking water contamination. Over the next several years, this law will curtail one of the biggest sources of PFAS pollution.” One big concern that still needs to be addressed is what to do with the unused AFFF foam.

One potential solution is the idea of incinerating it. This potential solution has received too much credibility, too quickly without a complete understanding of the potential health and environmental side effects. Recent studies highlight that incineration is an untested method of disposal and would likely result in dangerous byproducts that would further threaten our health and environment. 

The military phasing out the use of AFFF on their bases and in their operations is a significant and necessary step forward. It serves as an important precedent for removing these dangerous chemicals from other aspects of our civilian lives. A study done by Professor Bond, from Bennington College, has proven “that ineffective incineration can lead to the airborne deposition of these toxic chemicals.” This has resulted in the contamination of the soil and groundwater in the surrounding areas.  The Department of Defense is aware that currently there is no safe disposal method of AFFF. It is also known that incineration may not fully destroy PFAS in the foam and can create environmentally unsatisfactory byproducts. Companies like Tradebe in Indiana and Norlite in New York have been disposing of AFFF by incineration regardless of side effects that can cause, like long term exposure to PFAS.  As the chemical industry creates more and more PFAS-laden products every day, the issue has the potential to get exponentially worse.  We need to have a safer way of disposal and incineration doesn’t appear to be the answer. 

Too many North Carolinaians know what PFAS contamination looks like. People like Daniel Seamans, with the  Brunswick County Schools system, who is working to ensure their students have access to bottled water while in school after a sample from Leland’s Belville Elementary School showed elevated levels of PFAS contamination. Or Larry Cahoon, a University of North Carolina Wilmington biologist studying the impact of these forever chemicals on the human body noted “we don’t know how much damage has been done by the decades of exposure” and “ideally, you want none of this in your water.” Sadly, we appear to be moving further away from that goal until we have a clear consensus on appropriate disposal methods.


Krista Early