SEATTLE — Firefighting foam floated on Lake Union on Wednesday morning after the Seattle Fire Department extinguished a fire at a Seattle Boat Company storage facility.
But while the fire’s effects on the lake aren’t fully known, officials say the foam itself is environmentally safe and will dissolve in the water on its own.
Washington State Department of Ecology spokesperson Ty Keltner said, “The foam itself was just localized to the water around the facility and it naturally dissipates,” he said.
Firefighting foams have historically contained toxic “forever chemicals” that don’t naturally break down in the environment. The per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, can evaporate or seep into the ground, contaminating groundwater, according to the Department of Ecology.
These chemicals have been linked to increased cancer risk, reproductive impairment and other adverse health effects. Foam containing the chemicals also poses a health risk to firefighters.
The Seattle Fire Department uses Novacool UEF, a nonfluorinated foam that doesn’t contain PFAS, nonylphenol ethoxylates or glycol ethers — all chemicals that can be toxic to people and aquatic life.
The department started researching nontoxic foam options in 2003 because of environmental issues, Capt. Kurt Plunkett said in a 2019 webinar. The department tested different foam products at the Grant County International Airport and the Washington State Fire Training Academy, before switching to Novacool more than a decade ago, according to David Cuerpo, a Fire Department spokesperson.
“The primary reason we went to this foam was because of its biodegradability and its claim to be environmentally safe,” Cuerpo said.
Novacool’s website says the foam “exceeds” EPA safety guidelines and no studies have found it causes toxic buildup or pollutes groundwater.
All Seattle Fire Department engines have a small amount of foam on hand, but it’s not used for all fires, Cuerpo said. Firefighters on Wednesday morning requested more foam than their engines had available.
The foam is most useful for complicated fires with high heat, like Wednesday’s, where fiberglass boats and metal structures burned at the marina.
“Foam helps absorb that heat and take it away, and it’s highly effective at doing so,” Cuerpo said. “This morning, it enabled us to get quick control over the fire.”
If water alone is used on a high-temperature fire, it immediately evaporates. forming steam, which isn’t effective and can be dangerous to firefighters, Cuerpo said.
A 2018 state law restricted the use of firefighting foams containing PFAS, but airports, including Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, are still required by federal law to use firefighting foams that contain PFAS.
In January, the Defense Department, in an action required by Congress, published the first-ever performance specifications for PFAS-free foams, which the FAA has accepted.
In the months ahead, as products are certified for meeting these standards, airports can start to dispose of PFAS foams and buy safer products.
The Department of Ecology responded to the fire Wednesday along with the Coast Guard, and deployed buoys to prevent additional hazardous chemicals leaking from the boats into Portage Bay and Lake Union. An aerial survey didn’t show debris or oily sheen in the water from the boats that burned, Keltner said.
The Department of Ecology will send staff back to the scene Wednesday afternoon to survey the area, where they’ll look for fire debris and fuel or other oil-based products in the water that could have spilled from the boats that burned.