AUGUSTA — The Maine Emergency Management Agency will soon survey fire departments around the state as the first step in a potential take-back and disposal program for firefighting foam containing toxic chemicals.

Firefighters at the Portland International Jetport in 2013 conduct an annual FAA training exercise for responding to a fire on board a plane. The state is now looking into how much firefighting foam in Maine still contains “forever chemicals.” Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

For decades, military and civilian firefighters used special foam containing chemicals known as PFAS to smother the intense flames caused by fuel fires. While manufacturers can no longer use two variants of the chemicals, large amounts of “legacy” PFAS-containing foam are still out there at fire stations, in storerooms or on response trucks nationwide.

Members of a PFAS Task Force created by Gov. Janet Mills recently endorsed a plan to conduct a statewide inventory of firefighting foam containing the chemicals. The working group conducting the inventory also plans to solicit information on where and how often PFAS-containing firefighting foam was used in Maine, which could help state environmental regulators pin down contamination sites.

Faith Staples, technological hazards program manager at MEMA, said the questionnaire and inventory will likely be modeled after similar efforts in other states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The goal, Staples said, is to gauge how much of the material is out there before the working group recommends next steps to the full task force.

“I think there is quite a bit because we have a lot of volunteer fire departments in the state of Maine,” Staples said. “I just don’t know how much.”

PFAS is the commonly used acronym for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that have been used for decades to create the nonstick surfaces on frying pans, to keep grease from soaking through food packaging and to help carpets or clothing repel liquids. A growing number of studies suggest PFAS – particularly two phased-out varieties, PFOA and PFOS – are linked to cancer, thyroid disruption and low birth weights as well as changes in the reproductive and immunological systems of lab animals.

While forms of PFAS are found in many common household products, the vast majority of the highest-profile contamination cases around the country have occurred on or near manufacturing facilities and military bases with airfields. Firefighting foam is the primary culprit in most military PFAS contamination cases.

The “aqueous film-forming foam” (or AFFF) is so effective at smothering the flames of burning jet fuel that the Federal Aviation Administration requires commercial airports to keep it on hand. The FAA actually requires airports to test their foam-spraying equipment at least twice annually.

Since 2003, manufacturers of firefighting foam have been required to use “short-chain” varieties of PFAS that are considered more stable and may have less of an environmental impact. Faced with growing international concern about the chemicals, federal investigators are researching potentially safer alternatives to PFAS in foam. But any resulting policy changes at the federal level are likely years away.

“In the interim, there really isn’t anything in the industry right now that is as effective at fighting fires and putting safety first,” said Jon Hendricks, deputy chief of the Portland Fire Department and the chief of the “air rescue” unit responsible for the Portland International Jetport. “This is the only product that the FAA is allowing us to use. Really, we are at their whim about what to do next.”

Hendricks said the jetport is taking additional steps to protect both the environment and the health of firefighters – who already face substantially higher cancer risks – during the mandatory, twice-yearly equipment tests.

For instance, a newly purchased firetruck should eliminate testing needs because it features a computer that automatically mixes the water and chemicals at the proportions needed to extinguish flames. Firefighters are more careful to minimize their contact with the foam nowadays. And the air rescue unit is exploring conducting required tests in the jetport’s dedicated plane “deicing area” so the foam can be captured and safely disposed of.

“From the jetport’s perspective, we are environmentally health-conscious, but we are also putting the public’s safety first” by continuing to use PFAS foam, said Hendricks, who expects to serve on the new state working group.

Mills created the state’s PFAS task force in February to investigate the extent of contamination in the state and recommend next steps to address it.

Several former military bases in the region – such as the Brunswick Naval Air Station and Pease Air Force Base just across the New Hampshire border – have been grappling with known PFAS hot spots for years. But the issue took on broader concerns in Maine after an Arundel dairy farmer discovered his groundwater and milk were contaminated, likely from PFAS-laced sludge or paper mill ash used as fertilizer on his crop fields decades ago.

The firefighting foam subgroup of the PFAS task force will include representatives of MEMA, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the State Fire Marshal’s Office, Maine State Fire Training Academy, Professional Firefighters of Maine, Portland jetport, Bangor International Airport, the Maine Air National Guard and petroleum tank operators.

Staples, with MEMA, said the group will likely look to the work done in other states already taking steps to address concerns over PFAS-containing firefighting foam.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, for instance, launched a voluntary “take-back” program last year for fire departments around the state. That program resulted in the removal and disposal of 149,016 pounds, or 17,531 gallons, of older firefighting materials that contained varieties of PFAS that were banned beginning in 2003. Post-2003 versions of the foam were not included, however, and are still being used.

But the Massachusetts survey of fire departments illustrates the potential challenge ahead for Maine and other states.

Of the 105 fire departments that responded to Massachusetts’ inventory survey, 69 reported small amounts of PFAS-containing foam while five reported large stores of the materials. The remaining 31 departments said they no longer had any of the suspect foam.

John Martell, president of Professional Firefighters of Maine and a retired firefighter/paramedic with the Portland Fire Department, said he was “encouraged” that the state is taking the PFAS threat seriously.

In addition to environmental and public health concerns, PFAS is just one more toxic chemical that firefighters are exposed to while doing their jobs. Cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters, according to the International Association of Firefighters.

Maine has taken steps to reduce firefighters’ exposure to potentially toxic smoke by banning certain flame retardants in upholstered furniture. While that policy took effect this year, it will take decades before furniture infused with those flame retardants is phased out of people’s homes, Martell said.

Potential direct exposure to PFAS-containing foams, Martell said, “only adds to the total burden.”

“It only heightens the awareness of the risk we face of contracting cancer in the firefighting services,” Martell said.