Aqueous film-forming foams, or AFFF, rapidly extinguish fuel fires, but they contain PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
The Environmental Protection Agency issued a lifetime drinking water health advisory for two substances in the PFAS family as emerging contaminants: Perfluorooctane Sulfonate, or PFOS, and Perfluorooctanoic Acid, or PFOA.
Because the military has used firefighting foams containing PFOS/PFOA, the Department of Defense is working to develop new foams that don't contain PFAS, are not hazardous to health and are just as effective as AFFF in extinguishing fuel fires, said Herb Nelson, director of the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program and the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program for the DOD.
SERDP, established in 1991 by Congress, is a partnership between the DOD, the EPA and the Energy Department. The EPA is part of the technical committee that helps to choose which problems to work on and which proposals should be funded, and it helps to manage the projects. And when a project is successful, the EPA helps to get the results out to the affected agencies.
The program's mission is to develop technologies to clean up or remediate past environmental contamination and to help in developing technologies to avoid future contamination, Nelson said.
ESTCP's mission is to move developed technologies to military installations and put them to use, he said.
Since 2011, about $10 million in funding has been put into the SERDP/ESTCP programs related to PFAS, Nelson added.
Some of the funding goes to the Naval Research Laboratory, which is looking for an AFFF replacement. Other funding goes to academia, other government agencies or civilian labs that show promise of coming up with a substitute or in cleaning up affected sites, Nelson said.
Jennifer Field, a professor with the Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology at Oregon State University, said DOD is the key source of funding for her lab and others in the United States. She noted that aqueous film-forming foams are also used by oil refineries, municipal fire stations and airports, so the problem goes beyond the military. Taxpayer dollars are being used to understand a complex problem that's accumulated over many years, she added.
PFAS is persistent in the environment, Field said, meaning it doesn't break down and degrade the way food waste does. It gets into the groundwater and, over time, goes into streams, fish and drinking water and then into humans.
Christopher Higgins, a DOD-funded professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, said DOD "encourages us to work across disciplines and outside our own university, even at locations throughout the world, to get the best minds to address this."
That broad set of expertise, Higgins said, includes soil chemists, hydrologists, and people focused on groundwater transport or bio-accumulation.
DOD has been proactive in addressing PFAS, he said. After the EPA issued provisional health advisories in 2009, Higgins noted, the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program and the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program started funding projects and moved very quickly. "DOD was one of the first groups to go out and look for these compounds," he said.
Higgins said he hopes the work will be a model for the rest of the United States in addition to informing what's happening at DOD sites.