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After Bradley B-17 Crash, Lasting Impact of PFAS Firefighting Foam Remains A Question

This image taken from video provided by the National Transportation Safety Board shows damage from a World War II-era B-17 bomber that crashed at Bradley International Airport on Oct. 2.

Christopher Albani was at home when he heard the call that a B-17 crashed at Bradley International Airport, killing seven people. He’s a firefighter, one of several who responded to the Oct. 2 crash. 

Albani was put on a hose line, dumping firefighting foam onto burning wreckage. 

“So in that moment, being exposed to it, guys were covered, head to toe, in the stuff,” Albani said.

Firefighters doused the flames using a special material called aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF. It smothers fires, extinguishing flames better than just water.

At the time, Albani said, first responders didn’t have time to think about the foam’s health risks.

“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,” Albani said. 

The Federal Aviation Administration requires airport operators to use AFFF because of its effectiveness against fuel fires. But at the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency says emerging evidence shows that some of the chemicals in those foams are toxic to humans and the environment. 

The vintage bomber crash, in which about 25,000 gallons of AFFF was used, highlights the conflicting messages of both agencies -- and the confusion created for airports and nearby residents like Paddy Abramowicz.  

Just a few days after the accident, Abramowicz said, pillowy mounds of white foam began piling up in the water behind her house. It was AFFF solution, which washed into storm drains at Bradley, flowed south, and aerated into fully formed foam as it cascaded down steps of small waterfalls behind her house. 

“It looked like a washing machine had exploded. And it was coming over both banks of the brook,” Abramowicz said.

Credit Paddy Abramowicz
PFAS-filled AFFF in the brook behind Paddy Abramowicz's home in Windsor.

Credit Patrick Skahill / Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Public Radio
The brook behind Abramowicz's house in Windsor, on Nov. 2, after the foam was removed.

AFFF contains per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, 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, said these so-called “forever chemicals” persist in the environment and are in just about everyone’s blood. Some of the chemicals are linked to a number of health problems.

“The most sensitive of those effects appear to be liver effects, there are immune system effects, and developmental effects,” Fields said.

Two of the most concerning chemicals in that family are PFOA and PFOS. The EPA is considering listing both as hazardous substances, but that hasn’t happened yet. 

PFOS was used to make firefighting foam through 2001. Since then, manufacturers voluntarily replaced it with more “modern” PFAS compounds.

“However, we have very limited toxicity information on those compounds,” Fields said. “My concern is that over time we will understand that they pose the same types of threats.”

Credit Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection
Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection
An area set up to contain PFAS-filled foam after the crash of a B-17 at Bradley International Airport.

Despite a shift away from PFOS-based AFFF, the EPA says nationwide, stocks of the “legacy” foam remain. 

The Connecticut Airport Authority, which oversees Bradley, said it used about 400 gallons of the old PFOS-filled concentrate in the B-17 crash. It also used about 300 gallons of the newer concentrate.

Jeff Chandler, a hazmat responder with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said that combination is legal. Other states have passed laws restricting the use of PFAS, but in Connecticut, there’s no legislation banning either type of foam, Chandler said.

“At this point, there is no obligation for any of the responders to give up which style that they use,” Chandler said.

The Connecticut Airport Authority said the majority of its foam is now “modern” foam. But in a statement, the authority said it has a “small quantity of the legacy foam” at the airport.

Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, said that he’s concerned about potential health issues but noted that even if he wanted to get rid of AFFF,  federal law won’t allow it.

“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,” Dillon said.

He said commercial airports across the country are trying to come to grips with what to do with this mandated foam. 

“We’re airport operators, we’re not chemical experts,” Dillon said. “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,” Dillon said. 

In a statement, the FAA said that 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. 

Meanwhile, the military already has taken action. At Connecticut’s Air National Guard base, situated next door to Bradley, AFFF has been banned from training since 2005. And, at the urging of the U.S. Air Force, the Guard eliminated “legacy” PFOS-based foam in its firetrucks nearly two years ago.

Christopher Albani, the firefighter who responded to the B-17 crash, said the PFAS-containing foam is used because it’s effective. 

Still, like many, he worries about its risks.

“We don’t want to get it into the environment,” Albani said. “We know the effects of it. And we try to use it for just, really, emergency operations only.”

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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