Southfield Fire Chief Johnny Menifee talks about the dangers of harmful chemicals in firefighting foam Oct. 18 at the Southfield Fire Department. Menifee was joined by Detroit Chief of Fire Operations Robert Distelrath, Michigan PFAS Action Response Team Director Carol Issacs and  State Fire Marshal Kevin Sehlmeyer for the discussion.

Southfield Fire Chief Johnny Menifee talks about the dangers of harmful chemicals in firefighting foam Oct. 18 at the Southfield Fire Department. Menifee was joined by Detroit Chief of Fire Operations Robert Distelrath, Michigan PFAS Action Response Team Director Carol Issacs and State Fire Marshal Kevin Sehlmeyer for the discussion.

Photo by Deb Jacques


Local, state fire officials meet to discuss PFAS firefighting foam

By: Kayla Dimick | Southfield Sun | Published October 23, 2018

SOUTHFIELD — Officials from the local and state levels met recently to discuss Michigan’s plan of action against a dangerous chemical that is contaminating drinking water. 

State Fire Marshal Kevin Sehlmeyer, Southfield Fire Chief Johnny Menifee, Detroit Chief of Fire Operations Robert Distelrath and Michigan PFAS Action Response Team Director Carol Issacs met Oct. 18 at the Southfield Fire Department for the discussion. 

Talk centered around the use of fire suppression foam containing perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, otherwise known as PFAS. 

According to the state of Michigan’s website, PFAS are part of a group of chemicals that have been used globally during the past century in manufacturing and firefighting, and in thousands of common household and consumer products. 

PFAS came on to the scene around the 1960s and have been considered useful for their resistance to heat, water and oil. 

Recently, however, experts have become increasingly concerned by the negative effects of high PFAS levels on human health, especially in drinking water. 

“Education and open lines of communication with the entire fire service community are critical as we provide and continue to develop detailed protocols on the use, training, storage and disposal of any firefighting foam containing PFAS,” Sehlmeyer said. 

Certain foams used during fire suppression and firefighter training have the potential to be the source of PFAS found in groundwater in Michigan. PFAS can get into drinking water when products containing it are used or spilled onto the ground or into lakes and rivers. PFAS move easily through the ground, according to officials, and can get into groundwater that is used for water supplies or for private drinking wells. 

While the research on PFAS and its effects on human health is new, Michigan was one of the first states to establish a cleanup standard for PFAS in groundwater used for drinking. 

Last year, the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team was launched with agencies representing health, the environment and other branches of state government, with the goal to investigate sources and locations of PFAS contamination in the state. The team also reportedly aims to take action to protect drinking water and to keep the public informed on PFAS. 

“What distinguishes us from other states is that we are actively seeking to find where the PFAS contamination is in the state,” Issacs said. “We’ve got a lot of moving parts on this one.”

According to the state’s website, PFAS do not break down in the environment, and they bioaccumulate, meaning the amount builds up over time in the blood and organs. 

Studies in animals who were exposed to PFAS found links between the chemicals and increased cholesterol, changes in the body’s hormones and immune system, decreased fertility, and increased risks of certain cancers. 

Sehlmeyer said the state’s Bureau of Fire Safety recently sought the input of countless fire departments on their use of fire suppression foam containing PFAS. 

In April, nearly 700 fire departments received a survey in order to identify the amount of PFAS foam the state is dealing with.

Another goal of the survey was to come up with a statewide solution to dispose of foam containing PFAS, as well as to prevent further contamination. 

While results of the survey are projected to be complete by the end of this year, Issacs said 45 percent of the fire departments surveyed said they currently have Class B AFFF foam, which is the fire suppression foam that contains PFAS. That’s a total of 32,000 gallons across the state. 

Menifee gave an update on the Southfield Fire Department’s Class B foam with PFAS supply. 

“We currently have about 145 gallons that has been removed and is stored separately. I don’t have any on our front-line vehicles right now, but we visited all of our procedures on if we had to use this. We will make sure we’re using proper precautions for the firefighters,” Menifee said. “We’re going to treat it more as a hazmat and try to contain the runoff and the spills and the decontamination of the fire gear.” 

For the departments that do have the Class B foam, Sehlmeyer said they have been instructed to only use the foam in emergencies and to not train with it. 

“If you have Class B, only use it for life and limb,” Sehlmeyer said. 

Menifee said that in his career, he has only used Class B foam five times. 

“This is something that is not used every day, and I have to reiterate what the fire marshal has said. Just because you see foam doesn’t mean it’s Class B foam,” he said. 

If Class B foam is used, departments should use sand to attempt to contain the material and should sandbag storm drains to prevent runoff. The department should then contact the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Pollution Emergency Alerting System to report the use of the foam. 

Sehlmeyer said he is working with the DEQ and other Michigan PFAS Action Response Team members in finding a safer alternative to the Class B foam. 

“I love that Michigan is taking the lead on this and that we’re actually finding out who has it, where it is, and what we can do to help control the health and environmental issues,” Menifee said. 

For more information, go to michigan.gov/pfasresponse.