A vendor testing equipment at the Anne Arundel County Fire Training Academy in Millersville in September unintentionally released aqueous film-forming foam into a storm drain, which flowed into Bear Branch, blanketing the water.
About 100 dead black-nosed dace, possibly suffocated by the foam covering the water’s surface, were found after the Sept. 24 incident, Maryland Department of Environment spokesperson Jay Apperson said.
The fire department conducted testing in Bear Branch and found low levels of PFAs, a class of human-made chemicals that persist in the environment and build up over time. PFAs, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been used in items like frying pans, water-resistant clothing and firefighting foam since the 1940s and scientists have tried to study their health effects.
The type of foam spilled was produced by National Foam Concentrates, which says on a product information page that its formula does not contain PFOs, a type of PFA, and lowers the environmental impact of foam without reducing performance in an emergency.
A safety data sheet for the foam states that it contains fluoroalkyl surfactants, a type of PFA.
University of Maryland Department of Fire Protection Engineering professor Jim Milke said firefighting foam helps contain burning fuel like kerosene, gasoline, jet fuel and oil. The foam excels at sticking together, Milke said, so it can form a blanket that smothers the fire and prevents re-ignition. But then it doesn’t come apart.
Fire department spokesperson Russ Davies said the department does not typically use foam at the Millersville site. It is usually used while training for fires at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.
In a 2016 health advisory, the Environmental Protection Agency said two specific PFAs, PFOS and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), have been found in the blood of every person tested, showing its prevalence. Most people are exposed through food and products, but drinking water can be a factor in communities where the water supply is contaminated, the EPA said.
The human-made chemicals are an emerging concern, and the state is developing a plan to reduce risk to the public, Apperson said. Soon it will begin testing drinking water for the substances, and recreationally caught fish will be sampled and tested for PFAs through the fish tissue monitoring program.
The EPA has set a health advisory for drinking water with more than 70 parts per trillion of combined PFOA and PFOS.
Of three testing sites near the academy, one close to Benfield Boulevard had the highest combination of PFOA and PFOS after the spill: 63 parts per trillion on Oct. 2 and 29 parts per trillion on Oct. 6, showing a decline over four days. The department is weighing requiring another round of sampling to see if PFAs have declined further, Apperson said.
Davies said after meeting with MDE, the facility will stop training that uses flowing water until a boom around the storm drain is in place.
Tom Guay, executive director of the Severn River Association, said he is worried about PFAs going up the food chain from water, to fish, to human.
“SRA would love to see a formal study and risk analysis of what risks this presents to residents in Ben Oaks, Pointfield Landing and Indian Landing — the three communities closest to the mouth of Bear Branch,” Guay said.
About a week after the Sept. 24 spill, more foam was spotted in Bear Branch. That wasn’t a second discharge, but instead was probably foam from the first spill being reactivated by the turbulent water, Davies said.
Department of Inspections and Permits spokesperson Tracie Reynolds said there was no violation of county code.
In the 2020 session of the Maryland General Assembly, legislators approved a bill that will ban the use of foams with added PFAs during firefighting training, starting in October 2021. Training at BWI is excepted. Otherwise, non-fluorinated training foam must be used.
Foam with PFAs can still be tested in certain circumstances, can still be sold and can still be used in firefighting or fire prevention. Annapolis state Sen. Sarah Elfreth sponsored the bill.
“It points to the fact that we needed this bill," she said. “Accidents happen.”
She said she is working on more PFA legislation for the 2021 session.