Health Care

Firefighting chemicals a health risk at many Florida sites. Just four have been tested.

Florida officials delayed telling residents about bad water

It took months for the Florida Department of Health to notify the neighbors of the State Fire College in Ocala about potentially elevated levels of dangerous chemicals contaminating their well water, emails show.
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It took months for the Florida Department of Health to notify the neighbors of the State Fire College in Ocala about potentially elevated levels of dangerous chemicals contaminating their well water, emails show.

It has been six months since Florida health officials learned that there was a potential problem with groundwater contamination, linked to fire retardant chemicals, at firefighting training sites across the state.

Of Florida’s 45 certified firefighting training facilities, 27 are known or suspected to have used those toxic chemicals, part of a family of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. But so far only four sites have been tested by the state Department of Environmental Protection for environmental contamination.

Another two dozen sites have yet to be assessed. Some facilities, like Miami-Dade College, are still using the foam today, for one-day training classes and on the coating of some of its firefighting gear.

The big question is: How potentially harmful is exposure to these chemicals to firefighters who are training and to people who live and work near those sites? The state is only beginning to assess how widespread that exposure could be.

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who also serves as the state’s fire marshal, said safety and health is his “top concern” for firefighters in training.

“As soon as I found out about the issues at the Florida State Fire College, I immediately took action and directed my office to provide clean water options, shut off the potable water and notify the students, employees and visitors. We’ve been providing bottled water and bagged ice since then.”

When state officials first discovered elevated levels of toxic chemicals in the water at the state-run Fire College in Ocala last August, they discovered the problem had been years in the making.

PFAS, a popular ingredient in firefighting foams had leached into the groundwater after years of firefighter training. Officials would soon discover it was tainting both water at the facility and the well water of some neighbors.

For decades, firefighting training facilities in Florida and across the country used chemical foams intended to efficiently and easily put out blazes. But the effects of some of the chemicals found in those materials are potentially causing long-term consequences to public health that are still being understood.

In 2002, 3M, the primary U.S. manufacturer of PFOS, a type of PFAS, voluntarily phased it out of production because of the potential chemical exposure and health effects on the public. Eight other major companies joined 3M in phasing out production in 2006, committing under a federal EPA program to reduce output and emissions by 95 percent in the next four years.

But many of the companies that committed to reducing their production had distributed those chemicals to sites all over the country: including airports, fire departments, military bases and fire training facilities.

And PFAS are made up of chemical compounds that do not biodegrade, meaning they can remain in the environment or the human body indefinitely. The EPA has put a limit on how much lifetime exposure to two compounds classified as PFAS is safe.

Their long-term effects are also unclear, but some studies suggest they may be carcinogenic or contribute to high cholesterol, thyroid disorders, adverse reproductive and developmental effects.

Federal officials have issued health advisories on the chemicals since at least 2009. But Florida has only recently begun to survey its dozens of fire training facilities for those chemicals and test surrounding soil and water for contamination.

Two of the four facilities assessed by DEP have already tested positive for elevated levels: Last year, the Fire College in Ocala identified unsafe levels of PFAS in its drinking water, a problem that was found to extend to nearby wells, including private homes, a fire station and a business. The discovery required the state to supply clean drinking water, though emails obtained by the Herald/Times through a public records request showed the state delayed in notifying residents.

The firefighting training facility in Citrus County stopped using such foam in November 2017, county spokeswoman Cynthia Oswald said. Testing done last month came back with preliminary results showing elevated levels of PFAS. The state Department of Health is currently testing approximately 30 wells within a mile of the facility.

Chipola College’s fire training facility in Marianna and a training center in Pasco County have also been tested or are being tested, but final results are not yet available.

DEP says it intends to assess the 20-plus other fire training sites before the end of the year, map any contamination and create a cleanup plan if required. The department also intends to provide bottled water or offer another water source to any well owners affected if test results exceed levels deemed safe by federal officials, spokeswoman Mara Gambineri said.

“DEP is currently in the process of conducting testing related to historic use of chemicals found in aqueous film forming foam [AFFF] at fire training facilities across the state,” she said. “Because there may be a long-term potential risk to human health or the environment associated with them, DEP, in conjunction with the Florida Department of Health, is working with fire training facilities across the state to address them.”

While the chemicals found in these flame retardants and foams have been documented as possible carcinogens, several fire training facilities said they do not proactively test for levels in their water supply. Some facilities said locally conducted water tests came back clean, but some of those tests only surveyed levels of certain bacterias, leads or fluorides, not PFAS.

In Hollywood, the city’s fire training center stopped using the chemicals in 2017, the same year Citrus County ceased using its firefighting foam. But DEP has yet to test the Hollywood facility’s water for elevated PFAS levels.

Ron Williams, director of the Lake Technical Center’s Fire Academy, said they are in a situation similar to Hollywood’s. While they mainly use liquid soap and water to mimic firefighting foam, they’ve used the chemical foam on a few occasions when it was donated from nearby stations.

Williams said a field employee for DEP took a tour of the facility Wednesday. Williams said he was told the agency was going to send people back in several weeks to “do some testing.”

“We’ve never had our water tested before,” Williams said.

North Collier Fire Control’s training facility uses dish soap, too, according to James Cunningham, the fire chief. To his knowledge, water has never been tested on campus.

In Tallahassee, where the fire training division stopped using foams in 2015, annual tests of the municipal water system look for radioactive contaminants, disinfectants and proof of discharge from drilling operations, mills or farms. But not PFOS or PFAS.

“As far as what we use foam for, it’s seldom and infrequent. It’s never in a concentrated area,” Division Chief Mike Hadden said. “Every once in a while, we test the foam and applicators to make sure they work. We haven’t touched it since 2015. We just worry about making sure the foam is up to date and compliant with DEP regulations.”

While the Department of Health has procedures for notifying residents of issues like water contamination nearby, a Herald/Times investigation in January showed that those notifications had been delayed. It took about four months for state health officials to notify select members of the community about potentially elevated levels of the chemicals near the State Fire College in Ocala, which were found to be between 250 and 270 parts per trillion — more than three times higher than the advisable 70 parts per trillion for drinking water.

In December, six former employees of the Fire College joined a class-action lawsuit against flame retardant manufacturers, alleging their exposure to toxic chemicals caused serious medical conditions including thyroid disease, breast cancer and kidney cancer.

While most of the state’s 45 facilities have phased out use of the foam — or in some cases, never used the chemicals to begin with — places like Miami-Dade College remain.

The students on the college’s north campus, which sits between Hialeah and Opa-locka, still use the chemicals on the coating of their firefighting gear and in the foam they use for every training class’ one-day session: approximately 20 gallons per class.

Juan Mendieta, a spokesman for Miami-Dade College, said water has yet to be tested.

Elizabeth Koh is a state government reporter in the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times’ Tallahassee bureau, where she covers health care politics and policy (and the occasional hurricane). A Brown University graduate, she has also covered local politics for the Washington Post and national politics for the Dallas Morning News’ D.C. bureau.
Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.
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