November 09, 2021

Gillibrand, Kildee Lead Colleagues In Bicameral, Bipartisan Letter Urging FAA To Take Immediate Action To Enable Airports To Transition To PFAS-Free Firefighting Foam

This week, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Dan Kildee (D-MI) led over 50 of their colleagues in sending a bipartisan letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) urging the agency to take immediate action to enable U.S. civilian airports to use PFAS-free firefighting foam.

The 2018 FAA Reauthorization bill made it so that as of October 4, 2021, FAA could no longer require that civilian airports use firefighting foams containing toxic PFAS chemicals. However, because FAA has not authorized the use of any alternative PFAS-free foams, provided any information about applying the UL 162 performance requirements to fluorine-free foams at airports, or updated the current military specification performance standard, airports are not able to make the switch at this time. The letter clarifies that Congress’ original intent of Section 332 was to trigger actions by the FAA so airports would have the option to begin using PFAS-free firefighting foam by October 4, 2021.

Specifically, the letter requests that FAA:

  • Provide specific actions FAA plans to take to enable airports to complete the switch to PFAS-free foam and propose a timeline for each action; and
  • Immediately allow all U.S. civilian airports to use fluorine-free foam, and allow them the flexibility to meet standards used by international airports such as ICAO Level B.

Contamination from PFAS runoff affects communities nationwide and is nothing short of a public health emergency,” said Senator Gillibrand. “It is critical that the FAA works swiftly to actually enable our airports to use PFAS-free foams. Immediate action is needed to protect both firefighters and those who live near airports.”

Instead of quickly adopting new standards that would allow airports the flexibility to use safer firefighting foams without toxic forever chemicals, the FAA is kicking the can down the road. This is in violation of the clear deadline Congress gave in 2018 and a betrayal of the communities near airports whose water has already been contaminated by decades foams use. The FAA is far behind our international peers who have allowed PFAS-free firefighting foams at airports for years,” said Melanie Benesh, Legislative Attorney for the Environmental Working Group.

"States are taking action on dangerous PFAS foams that have polluted water supplies across the country but they need partnership with federal agencies like FAA. The FAA should finish the job Congress told it to do three years ago and end the use of PFAS foams at airports," said Liz Hitchcock, Director for Safer Chemicals Healthy Families.

PFAS, formally known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of toxic chemicals that have been linked to certain cancers, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, decreased immune function in children, and other serious adverse health effects. PFAS are used as an ingredient in special foam used to fight fires, called aqueous film forming foam (AFFF). The use of this foam, particularly at training facilities, exposes firefighters to toxic PFAS. Additionally, runoff from the use of AFFF has been discovered as the source of groundwater and drinking water contamination for communities near the facilities where it is used. Experts estimate that the drinking water supplies of more than 200 million Americans are contaminated with PFAS. 

Senator Gillibrand has long fought to protect communities and firefighters from the toxic effects of PFAS. In 2019, she successfully fought to ban the use of PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam used on military bases.

The bicameral letter was led by Senator Gillibrand and Representative Dan Kildee (D-MI) and was also signed by Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Ed Markey (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Gary Peters (D-MI), and Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) as well as Representatives Madeleine Dean (D-PA), Mike Gallagher (R-WI), Ann McLane Kuster (D-NH), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Fred Upton (R-MI), David Rouzer (R-NC), Andy Levin (D-MI), Ro Khanna (D-CA), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Bill Posey (R-FL), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ron Kind (D-WI), Michael R. Turner (R-OH), Jared Huffman (D-CA), Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), Grace Meng (D-NY), Don Young (R-AR), Chris Pappas (D-NH), Adam Smith (D-WA), Debbie Dingell (D-MI), Mondaire Jones (D-NY), Peter Welch (D-VT), Derek Kilmer (D-WA), Deborah Ross (D-NC), Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Peter Meijer (R-MI), James McGovern (D-MA), Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), Nancy Mace (R-SC), Haley Stevens (D-MI), Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), Kathleen Rice (D-NY), Donald Beyer (D-VA), and John Larson (D-CT).

To read the full letter, please click here or see below.

Administrator Dickson:

We are writing today regarding the steps that need to be taken to enable airports to utilize PFAS-free firefighting foam. To clarify, Congress’ original intent of Section 332 of the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2018 (P.L. No. 115-254) was to trigger actions by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) so airports would have the option to begin using PFAS-free firefighting foam by October 4, 2021.

PFAS, formally known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of toxic chemicals that have impacted the lives of Americans nationwide. PFAS have been linked to certain cancers, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, decreased immune function in children, and other serious adverse health effects. Experts estimate that the drinking water supplies of more than 200 million Americans are contaminated with PFAS.

We understand that the FAA under the Biden-Harris administration is working with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to find a PFAS-free firefighting foam alternative, conducting research on the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS, and using technology to reduce PFAS discharges in testing of firefighting equipment. We know that the Biden administration shares a commitment to addressing the PFAS contamination crisis and taking steps to tackle this urgent public health emergency.

We were pleased to see that the FAA issued an alert to airports on October 5, 2021, announcing that the airport firefighting foam standards no longer requires that foam “shall consist of fluorocarbon surfactants,” (i.e. foams must contain toxic PFAS chemicals), as required by Congress in Section 332. However, because the FAA has not authorized the use of any alternative PFAS-free foams, provided any information about applying the UL 162 performance requirements to fluorine-free foams at airports[2], or updated the current military specification performance standard, airports are not allowed or in a position to make the switch at this time. Additionally, the only way for airports to comply with the current performance standards is by using foams containing PFAS. Therefore, we urge you to take immediate action to update the current performance standard requirements for civilian airports and ensure airports are able to start using PFAS-free foam alternatives as soon as possible.

As Members of Congress who represent communities impacted by PFAS pollution from airports, we are urging the FAA to act swiftly to address this urgent issue. Any delay in updating the current performance requirements and authorizing a PFAS-free alternative will continue to exacerbate the potential contamination of ground and drinking water supplies by PFAS, endangering the health of those who reside in communities near airports.

Many airports globally are already using fluorinated-free foams at their airports. Some of the major international airports using PFAS-free alternatives include: London Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and City, Manchester, Paris Charles De Gaulle, Paris Orly, Lyon, Helsinki, Lisbon, Dubai, Brussels, Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Stuttgart, Dortmund, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Firefighting experts believe the military standards created by the U.S. Navy are largely over-engineered for shore based fires, and were designed more specifically to address fires on the seas.

Therefore, we request that FAA:

  • Provide specific actions FAA plans to take to enable airports to complete the switch to PFAS-free foam and propose a timeline for each action; and
  • Immediately allow all U.S. civilian airports to use fluorine-free foam, and allow them the flexibility to meet standards used by international airports such as ICAO[4] Level B[5].

We look forward to working with you to address this public health and environmental issue. Residents of communities living nearby airports deserve immediate action. Swift actions must be taken to protect them.

Thank you for your attention to this important issue.