March 1 2021: NSW moves to ban toxic firefighting chemical

‘The product is dangerous’: NSW moves to ban toxic firefighting chemical

March 1 2021

The state government will ban firefighting foams containing PFAS chemicals, bringing NSW into line with Queensland and South Australia where foams containing the dangerous toxins are already outlawed.

The Herald can reveal the ban will be announced on Monday by NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean and will prohibit the use of firefighting foams containing PFAS for training or demonstration purposes from March.

Foams containing the per- and poly-fluoroalkyl chemicals will still be able to be used in catastrophic or special circumstances.

“This ban on PFAS firefighting foam will significantly reduce the impact on our environment
but still enable our emergency agencies to fight catastrophic fires that can have devastating
impacts on life and property,” Mr Kean said.

PFAS chemicals do not break down in the environment and have been linked to a slew of health effects by overseas governments, including cancer, immune system suppression and hormone disruption.

Australia remains one of the only countries in the world not to have introduced a ban at a federal level by ratifying a United Nations treaty.

Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, from the National Toxics Network, said the organisation welcomed the decision but believed there was no place for PFAS in firefighting foams at all, given the alternatives available.

“This decision by NSW can be considered well overdue as, in May 2019, more than 180 countries agreed to ban the use of firefighting foams containing PFOA or PFOS in training exercises.

“Even the chemical industry lobby group, the FluoroCouncil, argued that they should never be used in a training exercise.”

Dr Lloyd-Smith added they would be looking at the details of the announcement with interest.

“There are thousands of PFAS chemicals and it will be important to know how many PFAS will the NSW ban cover and how they will monitor the ban,” she said.

PFAS chemicals have contaminated the blood of most of the global population due to their past use in popular consumer products including cosmetics, food packaging, textiles, Teflon frying pans and the fabric protector Scotchguard.

Their main use in Australia today is in firefighting foams to smother liquid fuel fires, along with in X-rays and chromium plating.

Government agencies, including Fire and Rescue NSW and the Department of Defence, have voluntarily abandoned use of the toxic foams but used them for decades during training exercises.

It is believed private industry continues to use stocks of the PFAS firefighting foams.

Mr Kean said the changes followed extensive consultation with emergency agencies and will be introduced in stages over the next 19 months to allow adequate time for systems and practices to be changed.

Even with the phase-out, PFAS will continue to be an ever-present threat in dozens of communities across Australia where the toxic foams have been used, lingering in waterways, on land and in the food chain.

Last year the federal government paid out a $212 million settlement after class actions were launched by communities polluted by the Department of Defence in Williamtown in NSW, Katherine in the Northern Territory and Oakey in Queensland.

Further lawsuits are either afoot or being investigated at an additional 24 military bases across the country.

The president of the Coalition against PFAS, Lindsay Clout, who was involved in the class action at Williamtown, welcomed news of the ban in NSW.

“It’s a commendable step in the right direction,” he said.

“It’s an admission that the product is dangerous and confirmation for all the people that have fought so long and hard to have the dangers of PFAS chemicals exposed.”

Investigations by the Sydney Morning Herald and Newcastle Herald have uncovered clusters of cancer cases in communities that have been heavily exposed to PFAS.

Fifty cases of cancer were uncovered on a heavily polluted road in Williamtown, while a further 21 cases were found at a high school in Minnesota in the United States’ mid-west where students drank polluted water.

The investigations also revealed that one of the main global manufacturers of the chemicals, 3M company, has been accused of secretly working over decades to “command the science” and deceive the public about the dangers of PFAS.

Last year in a landmark finding, the Federal Court’s independent expert umpire ruled there is “good evidence” that PFAS potentially causes harmful effects, including cancer.

The Queensland Government was the first ban the use of PFAS firefighting foams in 2016 and it was followed by South Australia in 2018.