Read the full article by Brett Chase (Chicago Sun-Times)

“When an American Airlines jetliner caught fire on an O’Hare Airport runway in October 2016, firefighters rushed to the scene.

Within three minutes, they’d blanketed the flames with a suffocating foam, a product used at airports for half a century. 

Known as AFFF, it has been used by Chicago and military firefighters because it can extinguish intense jet fuel fires.

The foam, now being phased out, also contains toxic substances known as forever chemicals that have been linked to cancers, liver damage, low birth weights, high cholesterol and other health threats. 

Those chemicals contaminated groundwater beneath city of Chicago-run O’Hare and Midway airports, military investigators have found. As part of a Department of Defense-initiated cleanup nationwide, they plan another round of testing as soon as next year. The department estimates that national cleanup costs will come to $39 billion.

Little has been made public about the extensive use of the firefighting foam in Chicago, but the Defense Department is examining the spread of the chemicals from the city’s two airports, where military stations once operated.

The chemicals — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS for short — contaminated groundwater at the airports, investigators found, though the extent of the spread isn’t clear. 

‘PFAS was the go-to firefighting chemical on airfields — both civilian and military across this country for the longest time,’ U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, says. ‘We had no idea what the consequences of PFAS exposure was.’

Duckworth, an Army veteran who trained at Midway, is among lawmakers pushing for the cleanup. She’s also pressing for alternatives to the foams, which still are used at military sites and airports, though federal officials advise that their use be limited to emergencies. 

Over decades, PFAS were spread at the airports through foam that spilled or was used for fires and training exercises. The military required its use. And large airports, such as O’Hare and Midway, made the product a standard for dousing petroleum-based fires. Tens of thousands of gallons of the foam have been stored at the two Chicago airports. 

Firefighting foam isn’t the only product made with PFAS. Thousands of consumer products — including nonstick pans, waterproof clothing, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags and dental floss — can contain the chemicals, which have been used since the 1940s. Nearly 15,000 chemicals are in the class of compounds known as PFAS. It’s estimated that almost everyone in the United States has some level of PFAS in their bodies.

In addition to the Chicago Fire Department stations at O’Hare and Midway, the military had ample supplies on site.

At O’Hare, the foam was used at an Air Force Reserve station from 1970 until it was closed in 1999. There are 11 locations at the former training site that need further investigation, according to an Air Force report in 2020 that says there were multiple spills in the 1990s at different locations.

At the base fire station, tanks holding thousands of gallons of foam were stored. 

At Midway, the Illinois Army National Guard trained around an armory building that’s still standing on 63rd Street near Central Avenue. A Chicago Fire Department station is just to the east on 63rd. 

The Army National Guard moved its base to Kankakee in 2017 after operating at Midway for much of the last century. A National Guard report, also completed in 2020, said it stored the PFAS foam but didn’t use it for training or on fires.

But possible releases of PFAS foam from spills in and around the armory would likely drain into the sewers that led to a water-treatment plant in Cicero, the report said. 

Both military branches ruled out any immediate threat to drinking water because Chicago and most suburbs surrounding the airports depend on Lake Michigan water piped directly to homes. 

The Air Force did an initial survey of suburban wells in the area within a mile around the airport and found no drinking water wells were immediately threatened.

Still, experts say the chemicals could now be in the ground beneath homes, surrounding areas and in the sewer system. Even after contaminated water is treated, the chemicals remain.

‘Once it gets into groundwater and discharged, it’s there forever,’ says Erik Olson, a senior strategist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.”…