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House Passes Bill Aimed At Protecting Firefighters From PFAS Exposures

The House has approved a Senate-passed bill that aims to protect firefighters from exposure to PFAS while in the line of duty by requiring the federal government to provide them with best practices guidance and curriculum aimed at lowering exposures to the chemicals through firefighting foam and personal protective equipment (PPE).

The House Dec. 1 overwhelmingly passed on a 400-22 vote a bipartisan bill -- S. 231 -- that requires the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to work with EPA and other federal bodies to publish guidance for firefighters and other emergency response personnel on training, education programs and best practices, as well as curriculum, aimed at protecting them from exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and limiting releases into the environment. The bill will now head to President Biden’s desk for signature.

During Nov. 29 debate in the House, a number of Democratic and Republican lawmakers advocated for passage of the bill, including Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-MI), Haley Stevens (D-MI), Frank Lucas (R-OK), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), and Bill Posey (R-FL).

“The PFAS Act would help protect the health and safety of firefighters, emergency responders, and the communities they serve from these harmful chemicals by developing guidance -- not bans -- for firefighters and other emergency response personnel on training, education programs, and best practices to protect them from exposure to harmful PFAS and to prevent its release into the environment,” Dingell said Nov. 29 during House debate. Dingell thanked Johnson and Lucas, chair and ranking member, respectively, of the Science, Space & Technology Committee, for their support in working to advance the bill to the floor.

Lucas, who rose in support of the bill, responded, “We both share the understanding that instead of banning PFAS, this bill focuses on education, understanding, and knowledge of these chemicals. Specifically, it will ensure that we are protecting our firefighters who rely on PFAS to extinguish fires.”

The Senate passed S. 231, titled the “Protecting Firefighters from Adverse Substances (PFAS) Act,” in July 2021. Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), the chief Senate sponsor of the bill, hailed the bill’s passage in the Senate last year, saying “Firefighters and first responders in Michigan and across our nation risk their lives every day to keep our communities safe. This bill will help protect these heroes from being exposed to dangerous PFAS chemicals in the line of duty.”

The bill also garnered bipartisan backing in the Senate. Original Senate co-sponsors were Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Tom Carper (D-DE), Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). The legislation is also backed by firefighter groups such as the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Consultation With EPA

Under the legislation, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which houses FEMA, would be required to consult with EPA, FEMA’s U.S. Fire Administration and other federal entities to develop, within one year, best practices and training guidance and curriculum to “reduce and eliminate exposure” to PFAS from firefighting foam and PPE, prevent the release of PFAS-containing firefighting foam into the environment, and educate firefighters and other emergency personnel on foams and non-foam alternatives and PPE and other equipment that do not contain PFAS.

DHS would also be tasked with creating an online public repository on tools and best practices for emergency response personnel to access in order to limit and prevent PFAS releases and exposures, the bill says.

The federal government in developing the guidance would also have to consult with interested entities such as fire service and emergency response organizations, communities dealing with PFAS contamination, scientists studying PFAS and PFAS-foam alternatives, state fire training academies and marshals, firefighting equipment manufacturers and voluntary standards organizations, according to the legislation.

The bill would also require updates to the guidance and curriculum every three years.

In a Dec. 1 statement praising the House vote, Environmental Working Group (EWG) Legislative Director for Government Affairs Jay Lucey said firefighters are among those most exposed to harms from PFAS but that many local fire departments lack the resources and guidance to switch to PFAS-free alternatives.

The EWG statement said the bill will help find ways to lower firefighters’ exposure to PFAS and to spur the search for firefighting tools and equipment made without PFAS.

EWG notes several states have already banned most uses of PFAS-containing firefighting foam, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York and Washington. Additionally, states such as California, Colorado and Michigan, have created take-back programs for the foam, and California, Colorado and New York also require manufacturers of firefighter protective equipment to disclose whether their products contain PFAS.