ELKHART, Ind. (WNDU) - Fire departments across the country use foam to smother fires in places water can't reach, but this same foam also contains toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, which are chemicals that are linked to health issues, even cancer.
16 News Now learned why the Elkhart Fire Department is moving away from using these foams.
Firefighters already put themselves in harm’s way by the definition of their jobs, but they also expose themselves to more carcinogenic chemicals than the typical person.
That's why switching to a new foam could make their lives safer, as well as the lives of those they serve.
"We just didn't know."
That's why Elkhart Fire Chief Steve Kamp said many fire departments used to use fire foam containing PFAS and why some continue to use it.
Elkhart is switching to a fluorine-free foam that doesn't contain the same carcinogenic chemicals, an important step for firefighters already at a higher risk for cancer.
“Here at the city of Elkhart, we already have three firefighters dealing with cancer that we are pushing and believing that are due to being on the job,” Kamp said.
Kamp also says it's better at fighting fires.
“This foam will do exactly what the other foam did. In fact, on a Class A fire at 1%, we'll get more use out of the foam than we did with the last foam, and it last longer,” he said.
The new foam will also be safer for the environment, whereas even small amounts of the old stuff could have the potential to contaminate an entire community’s water supply.
“One 5-gallon bucket, if you were to pour that into a lake, would contaminate 400 Olympic-sized swimming pools above the health advisory limit of the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States,” University of Notre Dame physics professor Graham Peaslee said.
PFAS are common in some of our everyday household items, but eliminating them from the fire foam avoids a big risk of accidentally ingesting it.
“As an industry, we've put them everywhere. They're in our carpets, they're in our clothing and they’re in our firefighting foams. But the firefighting foams are exposed to the water much more frequently, and that's why we're urging fire departments to take a lead and phase this out,” Peaslee said.
It is one step toward making fighting fires safer, even after they've put out the blaze.