How suburban fire departments are preparing for foam ban

Beginning in 2025, a fire suppressant containing so-called forever chemicals that never break down in the environment will be prohibited from manufacture, sale and distribution in Illinois - and suburban fire departments are getting ready for the ban.

Two chemical products are at the center of the issue. Aqueous film forming foam is used at industrial facilities and airports, and by fire departments to extinguish flammable liquid fires such as fuel fires.

The foam contains PFAS, the acronym for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that are widely used in commercial and consumer products. Due to long-standing environmental and health concerns about PFAS, and thanks to the emergence of alternatives that don't contain them, the foam is slowly being phased out.

Signed into law in 2021, the PFAS Reduction Act restricts the use of aqueous film forming foam, both in the field and for training and testing. After using PFAS-containing foam, departments must report to the state within 48 hours the time, date, location and quantity of the release, the reason for the release, and the proposed containment, treatment and disposal steps needed to minimize contamination.

The substance will further be prohibited from manufacture, sale and distribution as of Jan. 1, 2025.

While not a complete ban - the statute maintains that it will not "prevent or discourage a fire department from responding to and mitigating incidents where a fire, spill or leak of a known or suspected flammable liquid has occurred or is believed to be imminent" - the law significantly slows the use of aqueous film forming foam.

"There are limited opportunities to use PFAS foam after 2025," said John Buckley, the legislative director for the Illinois Fire Chief Association. "Our goal in the legislation was to be able to provide alternatives and to give our members a sufficient amount of time ... to phase out and find solutions."

Buckley added that for many departments, funding is "the overwhelming stumbling block."

That's because replacing the foam is no cheap task. It requires funding to buy new foam and to get rid of the old foam.

In Des Plaines, Fire Chief Daniel Anderson said his department spent several thousand dollars to dispose of its 230 gallons of AFFF, hiring Wheeling-based company SET Environmental for disposal. The department replaced the foam with a PFAS-free alternative foam.

"For me, it wasn't worth the risk of either potentially putting our people in harm's way or damaging the environment," Anderson said. "You have to be able to contain the runoff if it ends up going into a storm sewer or a sanitary sewer system. Then you have to notify the water treatment plants, and it becomes a nightmare. We made the decision to pull it all, stop using it and purchase the correct PFAS-free foam."

Anderson added that the department uses the foam sparingly. The last time the department used it in a large quantity was in early 2019, at an accident scene on Elmhurst Road in which a semitrailer truck hauling denatured alcohol rolled over.

Similarly, Elgin Fire Chief Robb Cagan said his department doesn't use the foam often.

"I can tell you that in my 30 years here with the Elgin Fire Department, I have probably used foam on two incidents," he said. "Foam is traditionally used when you have liquid fuels like gasoline fires, diesel fires - combustible flammable liquid type fires - which we don't get a ton of."

One of those incidents, though, was last summer, when pallets of illegally stored hand sanitizer caught fire. The department went through a large amount of its foam cache to put out the blaze, then worked with the Fox Valley Water Reclamation District to ensure correct cleanup and monitor potential water contamination, Cagan said.

Though the department rarely needs the foam, five-gallon buckets are stored in fire engines. Cagan is looking to phase out the remaining supply of PFAS-containing foam and transition to an alternative.

For departments facing financial challenges in phasing out their foam stock, the Illinois Fire Chief Association is working on legislation that would put about $1 million toward a statewide buyback program.

Though it would not assist departments in purchasing new foam, the program would help support the disposal of 27,000 gallons of AFFF, as estimated using survey data collected by the state fire marshal's office under the PFAS Reduction Act.

The PFAS omnibus bill, which includes the buyback program among other PFAS-related initiatives, passed the Illinois House in March. With the legislative session scheduled to close this month, the bill has another week to pass the Senate.

"We're really hoping to be able to do something with the legislature this year, even though we only have another week," Buckley said. "We're still hopeful that we can get something done."

With the passage of the 2021 law, Illinois joined a dozen other states including Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota to enact a restriction on PFAS-containing Class B firefighting foam. As of 2023, a total of 24 states have banned training with AFFF or otherwise restricted its use.

Illinois' law is unique because it also requires AFFF manufacturers to provide warnings to fire departments that "the product contains PFASs that may be hazardous to health or the environment; the use of the product is regulated and restricted under this act; and other Class B firefighting foam options may be available for purchase."

Amid the implementation of the law, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul recently filed a lawsuit against multiple companies that manufacture the PFAS used in AFFF.

The lawsuit seeks to recover damages specific to the fire suppressing foam, and it alleges that in manufacturing, selling and marketing the chemicals, the companies benefit while knowingly contaminating Illinois' environment and natural resources.

PFAS, which refers to over 5,000 human-made chemical compounds, have been the subject of growing environmental concerns due to their uniquely everlasting quality that earned them the nickname "forever chemicals."

Launched for widespread commercial use in the 1950s, they are released into our soil, water and air through landfill leakage, sewage sludge and industrial waste. Along with firefighting foam, PFAS are also used in industrial and consumer products to make items nonstick and oil-, water- or stain-resistant. That includes things like nonstick pans, waterproof jackets and even shampoo and conditioner.

While fire departments have been working to address the issue of PFAS in foam for decades, the chemicals recently have been at the center of another concern for firefighters, as they are also used in personal protective gear as a water repellent.

"It's a national issue. The problem is, there is no alternative currently," Buckley said. "All of the gear that firefighters wear is relatively complex. It's got multiple layers that do multiple different things. PFAS is used in it as a water repellent effect, and part of the issue is there's nothing that meets the standards currently that would replace that."

Buckley added that there remain a number of questions about the extent to which the PFAS-containing equipment that firefighters wear is hazardous, and for now he is looking to the National Fire Protection Association for any potential changes in standards.

• Jenny Whidden is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see

  The Des Plaines Fire Department already is using PFAS-free foam to combat flammable liquid fires. Here, fire engineer Kevin Murphy shows where the equipment for foam operations is stored. Paul Valade/
  Des Plaines Fire Chief Dan Anderson said his department is planning to get turnout gear made with materials free of PFAS. Paul Valade/
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.