Firefighting Chemicals Polluted Miami-Dade Tap Water

Aqueous film-forming foams rapidly extinguish fuel fires, but they contain so-called forever chemicals.
Recent testing shows the groundwater at Miami Dade College's North Campus is contaminated with firefighting chemicals that pose health risks, Florida regulators say.

That water is treated and circulated throughout parts of Miami-Dade County. Despite the test results, the county says its tap water is safe to drink.

"The county's Water and Sewer Department treats the drinking water, and it meets [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] standards," says Tere Florin, a spokesperson for the Miami-Dade Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources.

The contamination came from aqueous film-forming foam used by the Miami Dade College Fire Academy at 3180 NW 119th St., according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Aqueous film-forming foams, or AFFFs, rapidly extinguish fuel fires, but they contain polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, which are considered "forever chemicals."

Forever chemicals do not break down naturally in the environment. PFAS contamination has been linked to several health problems, including birth defects, thyroid disruption, and cancer, according to the EPA.

The county's sole source of drinking water is groundwater from wells that feed into the Hialeah, Preston, or Alexander Orr treatment plants. But the county's treatment plants do not remove PFAS compounds from water, according to Doug Yoder, deputy director of the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department.

Florida does not have its own PFAS safety standard and instead relies on federal guidelines, which recommend that municipalities maintain PFAS levels lower than 70 parts per trillion.

Testing conducted on seven monitoring wells on Miami Dade College's North Campus this past October, however, revealed PFAS readings far exceeding 70 parts per trillion. The on-campus well with the least amount of PFAS contained 800 parts per trillion; the well with the most PFAS contained 26,100 parts per trillion.

The state was notified of the "exceedances" shortly after the testing. Officials are expected to sample nearby private wells soon, DEP records show.

Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took initial steps to set legal limits for levels of two key PFAS chemicals in drinking water. Though the county asserts its drinking water is within the current "health advisory level" for PFAS, it has begun to research additional treatment methods in case the EPA formalizes PFAS standards.

Several fire departments across the nation have stopped using foam products that contain PFAS owing to human health concerns. Likewise, the Miami Dade College Fire Academy no longer uses the chemical-containing firefighting foams, according to spokesperson Juan Mendieta.

"For nearly a year now, the fire academy does not use any substances that contain any PFAS," he says. "In the past, like at most all fire academies, it was used on the coating of firefighting gear and in foam for a one-day training session every semester — approximately 20 gallons each time."

Florida regulators are developing a cleanup plan at the North Campus site to remove or contain the contamination.

"[The Department of Health] has been notified, and sampling teams are canvassing the area," says Dave Phillips, an environmental administrator with the DEP.