by Ryan Gaug
Minnesota DOT Office of Aeronautics
Published in Midwest Flyer – August/September 2020 issue
This past January, just before COVID-19 became widely known and the world would change in ways we could never imagine, I was on a flight to Washington D.C. preparing for the Transportation Research Board (TRB) Annual Meeting. I’m honored to serve on TRB’s Standing Committee on Intergovernmental Relations in Aviation, or AV010 for short. AV010 focuses on important aviation research and this meeting is one of my favorite work events to attend.
Not long before my D.C. trip, but well before I was paying attention to COVID-19, a very different kind of risk to public health came to my attention. It is called PFAS, or Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. While PFAS impacts are not fully understood, they do have health impacts, and they are readily found in the water we drink, among many other places. I chose to spend most of one day in D.C. learning what is known, and not yet understood, about the impacts these manmade substances could have on human health, along with their connection to airports, aviation, and government budgets everywhere.
What exactly are PFAS and why would someone working in aviation spend an entire day learning about them? PFAS constitute a family of more than 4,000 industry-made “forever chemicals” (they do not break down) first invented in the 1930s and began appearing in non-stick, stain-resistant, and water-resistant consumer products in the 1940s. In the 1960s and ‘70s, PFAS were used to make aqueous film-forming foam, a substance that is very effective at suppressing petroleum-based fires, such as those that may occur following an accident at an airport.
PFAS-containing foams are so effective that they are required by the FAA to be used for Aviation Rescue and Firefighting (ARFF) at commercial service airports. PFAS are also found in the fire suppression foams that are a standard for some hangars. And it is likely that foams with PFAS are used much more widely by municipalities. The FAA is reviewing and researching non-PFAS containing alternatives, though it was not clear from the session I attended, when they may be available.
One challenge here in Minnesota is that while use of foams containing PFAS have recently been banned for all training or testing purposes starting July 2020, this may result in a conflict between FAA requirements and Minnesota’s laws. Minnesota’s new law allows use of these foams in emergencies, but any use after June 30, 2020 must be reported within 24 hours.
One concern, of many, is that when these foams are discharged, they can find their way into our ground water. Just last year the Bemidji Regional Airport made headlines because PFAS was found in its ground water wells which are located right next to the airport where aqueous film-forming foam was known to have been used for some time. The financial impacts to that community, which decided to dig new wells, will be substantial. The health impacts are not yet known.
I am far from being the expert on PFAS or its impacts, nor am I an alarmist, but I do think we have only begun the public conversation on this topic.
During my day of PFAS learning in D.C., one of the presenters speculated to the roughly 25 attendees (of an estimated 14,000 in attendance at the conference) that there would likely be many more PFAS-related sessions at next year’s TRB meeting. He also speculated they would draw many more attendees due to an expected increase in awareness in the coming year.
Why am I writing about this topic and what do I hope you’ll take away from reading this article?
First, I’d like to help increase awareness. I think it’s only a matter of time until we’ve all heard of PFAS and communities will be working to understand potential risks.
Second, I hope you will consider starting a conversation about PFAS in your community, if it hasn’t already begun.
Is your community ready for the conversation if questions are asked about your airport and aqueous film-forming foam use? One panelist from the New Hampshire DOT described how the identification of soils contaminated with PFAS resulted in substantial cost increases to an otherwise typical road-widening project due to required PFAS mitigation. Will PFAS mitigation strategies, and their costs, become another new normal?
If you are interested in learning more about PFAS, the Minnesota Department of Health has information. Also, nearly every panelist at the session I attended cited the Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council as being an excellent source for information, and having the tools and resources needed to inform others about PFAS and their risks.