Toxic firefighting chemicals found in WA airports and defence sites under investigation
10 November 2016
Authorities are scrambling to determine the extent of contamination from toxic firefighting chemicals in Western Australia, with airports, firefighting training facilities and defence sites under investigation.
Five airport sites across the state, including Perth Airport, are known or suspected to be contaminated with the chemicals, according to Airservices Australia, an Australian government-owned corporation which is responsible for aviation firefighting.
Airservices Australia is assessing Perth and Broome airports, as well as the former airport sites at Karratha and Port Hedland.
Jandakot Airport is now privately run, but its managing director John Fraser said an investigation conducted four years ago found small areas of contamination by perfluorinated chemicals.
“It’s not a dangerous situation and we are monitoring it,” he said.
An Airservices Australia spokesperson said it would assess the level of contamination — and test ways to remediate the sites — over the next 12 to 18 months, but planned to publicly release some results in the coming months.
A firefighting foam called 3M Brightwater, which contained the dangerous Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), was used at the five WA airports until 2003.
It was then replaced by Ansulite, which was later found to contain traces of the chemicals, until 2010.
Since then, a foam called Solberg RF6, which is free of the chemicals, has been used at civilian airports with firefighting services.
The WA Department of Fire and Emergency Services has also found one bore on a semi-industrial property neighbouring its Forrestfield training academy is contaminated with the chemicals.
Defence department conducting tests at RAAF, naval bases
Now investigations are showing the chemicals have also contaminated bores in WA.
Just this week, the Department of Defence released the results of its preliminary investigation into HMAS Stirling, near Rockingham, which found high levels of groundwater contamination by PFOS and PFOA at the strategically significant naval base.
Testing conducted between 2013 and this year showed eight bores on the Garden Island facility were contaminated, many times exceeding Australian health guidelines for drinking and recreational water.
But there was no testing of whether these chemicals were present in sites surrounding the Cockburn Sound facility.
The National Toxics Network’s chemical expert, Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, said the HMAS Stirling findings should be “ringing alarm bells”.
“It’s time for an independent arm’s length body to oversee the review, management and remediation of these sites,” she said.
The Department of Defence has also expanded its investigation into potential contamination to all of its sites across Western Australia.
A spokesperson said the department expected to announce this month whether a human health risk assessment of RAAF Pearce was necessary, after preliminary testing showed PFOA and PFOS were present in two surface water sampling sites in the fire training area of the base.
Experts divided on whether chemicals cause health problems
But not all experts agree on whether the chemicals can be directly linked to health problems.
Dr Lloyd-Smith supports the US Environmental Protection Authority’s (EPA) assessment they can cause adverse health effects.
“The most consistent findings from human epidemiology studies are increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations, with more limited findings related to low infant birth weights, effects on the immune system, cancer for PFOA, and thyroid hormone disruption for PFOS,” the US EPA said.
However, environmental scientist Jochen Mueller, from the University of Queensland’s National Research Centre for Environmental Toxicity, is more cautious.
“To measure exposure to perfluorinated chemicals is relatively straightforward and when I say exposure, I mean past exposure, cumulative past exposure,” he said.
“Where as to measure the effect in individuals associated with high exposure to PFOS, it’s extremely difficult, if there are any.”