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News 3 investigates firefighters exposed to 'forever chemicals' in gear

Volunteer firefighters
Posted at 8:46 AM, Jun 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-16 18:27:20-04

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - At a young age, Kevin Ferrara answered the call. First, as a volunteer firefighter, and eventually, as an airman at various military bases.

“At 16, my passion was to give back to the community,” Ferrara told News 3.

One of those bases included Langley Air Force Base in Hampton.

“That was really my dream assignment,” he said. “A lot of our time was comprised of doing training, and that involved anything from rescue training [and] medical training to aircraft rescue firefighter training.”

He spent 10 years as a firefighter at Langley before retiring from the military in 2017.

At that point, he started hearing about PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) chemicals.

PFAS chemicals are "man-made,” industrially-produced compounds also known as "forever chemicals.”

Last month, News 3 looked into reports of PFAS chemicals found at Langley and other military bases.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) told News 3 the largest source of PFAS at military bases is firefighting foam.

“It was used in training exercises widely,” EWG Policy Analyst Jared Hayes said.

According to the Department of Defense (DOD), the firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals is known as aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF).

In a report from last October, officials said the foam is used by the DOD, civilian firefighting groups and many industries to put out fuel fires.

“Foam creates a blanket. It kind of snuffs out the oxygen and contains the fuel so it can't burn,” Virginia Beach Fire Dept. District Chief Amy Valdez told News 3.

Chesapeake Fire Dept. crews recently confirmed the foam was used to help put out the fire on the Spirit of Norfolk.

Ferrara told News 3 he used AFFF throughout this time at Langley.

“We would discharge foam just to make sure that the apparatus was in service. Fire crews pretty much did that every day,” he said. “Just imagine the amount of foam over that time that was discharged.”

After retiring, Ferrara eventually got a blood test for PFAS.

“When I got the results, it actually shocked me as to the amount I had in my system,” he said. “It's about 22,000 parts per trillion (ppt), whereas the EPA’s lifetime health advisory for water is only 70 parts per trillion (ppt).”

“At first, it was very frustrating,” Ferrara added. “I was angry, but I can't change the past, I work to change the future.”

Meanwhile, Valdez confirmed VBFD is disposing of all of their AFFF foam.

Virginia Beach fire crews are using a different foam today. It’s a foam they’ve had for about a year that replaces AFFF they used to use. The difference is the new foam, according to Valdez, contains no carcinogens or PFAS.

“The main reason we're making the switch is to avoid the potential exposure to our responders and our cleanup companies,” she said.

Valdez said they’re disposing their AFFF supply safely and properly, and added fire crews in Virginia Beach rarely used AFFF in the past.

In December, the DOD stated the department's research and development effort involves finding effective substitutes for AFFF. The department also implemented PFAS blood testing for firefighters and is working to improve its testing implementation plan.

Virginia code also states, as of July 1, 2021, no person, local government, or agency of the Commonwealth shall discharge or otherwise use class B firefighting foam that contains intentionally added PFAS chemicals (i) for testing purposes, unless otherwise required by law or by the agency having jurisdiction over the testing facility, and with the condition that the testing facility has implemented appropriate containment, treatment, and disposal measures to prevent uncontrolled releases of foam to the environment or (ii) for training purposes, where such foam shall be replaced by nonfluorinated training foams.

The code further states that no provision of this section shall restrict (i) the manufacture, sale or distribution of class B firefighting foam that contains intentionally added PFAS chemicals or (ii) the discharge or other use of such foams in emergency firefighting or fire prevention operations.

“The time is now,” Ferrara said. “Either regulate or eliminate PFAS chemicals.”

For Ferrara, he's still a volunteer firefighter.

But his mission, along with fighting fires, includes fighting for his colleagues.

“For me, it's all about public safety,” he said. “Giving back to the community 110% and just helping out whoever I can and whenever I can.”

Ferrara and others recommend that if you've used this type of firefighting foam or served on military bases - especially more than 10 years ago - that have been reported to have PFAS chemicals, get a blood test to look at PFAS levels and help reduce ongoing exposures.

Click here for more News 3 Investigations.