Controversial Foam Containing 'Forever Chemicals' Used to Subdue Chemical Plant Fire

Tests are underway after officials voiced concerns about a foam used to put out the last of the Chemtool chemical plant fire in Illinois, believing that the toxic compounds from the foam could have polluted surface water and groundwater in the U.S., WMAQ-TV in Chicago reported.

An explosion at the Chemtool plant near Rockton, Illinois, on Monday led to a four-day battle to control the flames and caused an elevated level of concern for the presence of potentially dangerous chemicals in the surrounding areas.

Officials said on Thursday that a private company, U.S. Fire Pump, had been called in to assist in extinguishing the fire. On Tuesday, Fire Pump sprayed a foam that reportedly contains polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) on the burning building for a few hours. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told the Associated Press that government regulators had voiced concern about the toxic foam the day before.

Linda Birnbaum, a toxicologist and former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, said, "If they contained the stuff so that it doesn't leave the area, that's good. But you can't totally keep it from reaching the ground; some of it is going to run off," according to the AP.

She added: "The problem with these chemicals is that they never go away."

EPA said officials with Illinois' environment department had raised concerns with Chemtool on Monday about using the foam containing PFAS—chemicals used in household and industrial products, that have previously been linked to numerous health problems, including cancer and damage to organs, including the liver, kidneys and thyroid gland.

These PFAS are called "forever chemicals" because they do not degrade in the environment or the human body.

So far, no contamination of the groundwater or the nearby Rock River has been detected, but the areas are still being tested.

"We will be fully transparent with the public and share test results and additional guidance as soon as we are able to do so," the Illinois EPA said in a statement.

The EPA told Newsweek that the Rockton Fire Department remains the lead agency for the response. While the federal agency provides support and guidance, the fire chief has the final say on how to best fight the fire, the EPA said.

The EPA confirmed that teams had been using the PFAS foam for about three hours before it was brought to the fire chief's attention, as he was not previously informed.

At a news conference on Thursday, Rockton Fire Chief Kirk Wilson stated that after learning the foam made with PFAS was being used, he ordered the company to switch to a different foam that did not contain any PFAS.

"Since then, foam which does not contain PFAS has become available onsite and that is what is being used for fire-suppression operations," the EPA announced in a separate statement regarding the issue.

In the press conference, Wilson confirmed that the chemicals have since been collected and stored appropriately, but experts said it would be hard to control where some chemicals are leaking.

Elizabeth Southerland, former director of science and technology with the EPA's Office of Water, told AP that the volume of PFAS-containing foam used on the fire was "relatively small," but those chemicals could still easily infiltrate the soil and reach groundwater, where they could migrate to streams or wells, she said.

#BREAKING: Officials lift the one-mile evacuation order surrounding the Chemtool plant, but officials will continue land, air, and water testing.

— 13WREX (@13WREX) June 18, 2021

Officials will continue to test the land, air and water in the area, but officials on Friday lifted the one-mile evacuation mandate surrounding the Chemtool plant.

Explosion At Rockton Chemtool Plant Causes Massive
Firefighters from northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin battle an industrial fire at Chemtool Inc. on June 14, in Rockton, Illinois. Officials are now concerned that toxic "forever" chemicals from the foam sprayed on the fire to put it out could have leaked into the groundwater and surface water in the area. Scott Olson/Getty Images