Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a class of manufactured chemicals that have been used since the 1950s to make products that resist heat, stains, grease and water.
Since 1970, firefighting foams containing PFAS have been widely used in Australia, including in SAMFS and Broadspectrum/Ventia fire stations, because they were highly effective in fighting liquid fuel fires.
In 2018 South Australia became the first state to ban all fluorinated firefighting foams, although they continue to be used at Edinburgh and Woomera Defence bases.
The Australian Government Expert Health Panel for PFAS reports that PFAS chemicals do not break down readily in the environment and can build up in humans for many years in the human body.
The Panel also reports that Australian firefighters are the “major group at risk of occupational exposure in Australia” and may have PFAS concentrations up to 10 times higher than other members of the community.
The Panel reports that although the scientific evidence on the relationship between PFAS exposure and health effects is “limited”, current research provides “fairly consistent reports” of the following health effects:
- increased levels of cholesterol in the blood;
- increased levels of uric acid in the blood;
- reduced kidney function;
- alterations in some indicators of immune response;
- altered levels of thyroid hormones and sex hormones;
- later age for starting menstruation (periods) in girls, and earlier menopause; and
- lower birth weight in babies
The Panel concluded that at present
“there is mostly limited or no evidence for any link with human disease from these observed differences. Importantly, there is no current evidence that supports a large impact on a person’s health as a result of high levels of PFAS exposure. However, the Panel noted that even though the evidence for PFAS exposure and links to health effects is very weak and inconsistent, important health effects for individuals exposed to PFAS cannot be ruled out based on the current evidence.”
Australian Government Expert Health Panel for PFAS: Summary (Mar 2018) available here.
SAMFS reports commencing use of PFAS firefighting foams in the 1970s and that it began phasing them out between 2007 and 2014.
In 2017 the UFUSA identified PFAS was still being used in SAMFS foam fire extinguishers. In response the SAMFS replaced all extinguishers to PFAS-free foams.
Following UFUSA advocacy about the concerns of firefighter exposure to PFAS, in May 2018 SAMFS coordinated a PFAS blood survey of members who volunteered to be tested.
Up to July 2019 the SAMFS reports 730 current and former SAMFS staff were tested with 41.6% having more than 10ng/mL of PFAS in their blood. This is compared to the average Australian having blood levels below this amount.
UFUSA members identified a cluster of high PFAS levels of members employed at Largs North station and MV Gallantry. In response, the Largs North station was temporarily closed and the MV Gallantry was taken out of service.
Between January and May 2019, the SAMFS reports further testing of PFAS levels of all SAMFS stations and 98% of SAMFS appliances with pumping capacity. The testing revealed elevated levels of PFAS in the follow stations:
- Largs North
- Camden Park
- Port Adelaide
- Mount Gambier
- Christies Beach
- O’Halloran Hill
- Port Augusta
- St Marys
In mid-2019 the SAMFS convened the PFAS Consultative Committee which UFUSA representatives participated in.
The Committee agreed to the formation of a Technical Working Group to be charged with the responsibility of monitoring PFAS levels across SAMFS sites, developing a testing regime along with oversighting the process involved.
The addition of an external expert, Professor Mark Taylor of Macquarie University, added a much needed professional and technical capacity to the PFAS issue. To date the Technical Working Group has yet to meet.
The work of the Technical Working Group is to include a monitoring program at Largs North, Port Adelaide, Oakden, Elizabeth, Mount Gambier and Camden Park stations where there have been elevated PFAS levels found in firefighters blood and/or in surrounding soil.
The UFUSA will use the PFAS Consultative Committee and Technical Working Group to ensure a science-based “Precautionary Principle” approach to the monitoring and remediation of PFAS contamination across all SAMFS stations.
Between 2019 and early 2020 the SAMFS report undertaking remediation work on Largs North station, including commercial cleaning, removal of garden produce and chickens, cleaning of air conditioning system and replacing of duct work, with the station being reoccupied from March 2020.
The SAMFS also reports undertaking remediation work at all other stations with elevated PFAS levels.
The UFUSA has secured the SAMFS’ agreement to provide voluntary re-testing of PFAS levels in Firefighters blood, which we encourage all members to do in order to build a comprehensive picture of PFAS levels in the membership and across time.
VENTIA (formely Broadspectrum)
Since the 1970s, PFAS firefighting foams have been used at defence facilities across Australia, including in South Australia.
From 2004, Department of Defence reports transitioning to a “more environmentally safe” firefighting product called Ansulite, which, alarmingly, still contains trace amounts of PFAS and so is NOT PFAS-free.
This is despite the Federal Parliament, as part of its 2018 inquiry into PFAS at defence bases, calling on the Australian Government to implement legislation to ban PFAS foams and use PFAS-free alternatives (see, further, here and here).
Between December 2016 and February 2019 Department of Defence reports completing environmental investigations across Edinburgh defence facility (see, further, here).
Department of Defence report that investigations found 12 source areas that represented a significant source of PFAS contamination, where environmental sample results exceeded relevant human health and/or ecological guidance values.
Ventia reports deploying a number of remediation steps, including taking over 10,000 tonnes of PFAS contaminated soil from Edinburgh defence facility and removing 46 kgs of PFAS, mass estimated to be 25 years’ worth of fire-fighting exercises (see, further, here).
Disappointingly, Broadspectrum and Ventia refuse to implement and pay for a voluntary blood testing programme for UFUSA members Australia-wide.
Voluntary blood testing programmes to assist in monitoring PFAS levels in firefighters have now been established in both State and Federal services such as Department of Defence and Airservices Australia.
The Federal Government Health Advice indicates that blood tests can “inform a community that they have been exposed to PFAS at a level above that of the general population” and that the “monitoring of pooled community blood samples over time may help determine the success of exposure reduction measures” (see further here).
The UFUSA calls for
- Ventia and Department of Defence to cease use of Ansulite and to follow the lead of Airservices Australia and transition to fluroine-free fighting foam;
- Ventia to pay for a voluntary blood testing programme to assist in establishing a baseline for PFAS levels amongst our members and to contribute to the body of research currently being undertaken into exposure reduction measures.
To find out more about PFAS and its impact on firefighters please see:
- UFUA submissions to Federal Parliamentary Enquiries into PFAS in and around defence bases here, here and here.
- IPEN Expert Panel, The Global PFAS Problem: Fluorine-free Alternatives as Solutions – Firefighting Foams and other Sources – Going Fluorine-Free (2019) here.