Aviation firefighters have recorded high blood levels of toxic chemicals. (ABC Far North: Mark Rigby, file photo)
Aviation firefighters across Australia have been found to have up to 20 times the normal level of toxic chemicals in their blood in testing conducted by Airservices Australia, the ABC can reveal.
The test results from 2013 have emerged in documents obtained from the Federal Government under freedom of information (FOI) laws.
Airservices Australia tested 150 firefighters for exposure to toxic chemicals, known as PFAS chemicals, which have described by one health expert as the new asbestos. Abnormal results were reported in the Queensland cities of Rockhampton and the Gold Coast, as well as in Sydney and Perth.
Airservices Australia said it would run a second exposure study “in the coming year”. (CRC CARE)
The documents also included safety recommendations for construction at contaminated sites, but workers have told the ABC the guidelines were ignored at a major project at Gold Coast Airport.
Those workers expressed anger at potentially being exposed to the toxic chemicals at the Gold Coast Airport in 2016 during a large construction project — a year after Airservices Australia was handed a report detailing how to protect against dangerous exposure.
Airservices Australia used firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals at Australian airports until 2010, and the chemicals have been found in soil and groundwater at some Australian airports.
Airservices said it published the firefighter blood tests in the Amsterdam-based specialist scientific journal, Environment International, and its worker safety report was shared with airports.
The documents obtained by the ABC state there have been no health issues directly attributable to high levels of the chemicals.
But an expert Australian health panel earlier this year found links between the chemicals and health conditions like reduced kidney function, lower birth weights in babies and higher cholesterol levels, although there was no overall increased risk of cancer.
Numerous Defence bases across Australia have been revealed to be contaminated. (Four Corners)
Hundreds of sites at risk of PFAS contamination: expert
Associate Professor Robert Niven from the University of NSW — an environmental engineer who has spent nearly 30 years study contamination — told the ABC the PFAS chemicals were the world’s next asbestos disaster.
“It seems to be very similar and it is astonishing that in this century we are having this play out with another class of chemicals,” he said.
“It has taken us all by surprise, but now that we know this we have to do something about it.”
He believes the problem goes well beyond airports, with hundreds, perhaps even thousands of sites across Australia at risk of contamination.
Professor Niven called on Airservices Australia to carry out more investigations and to release more information about PFAS contamination at its sites.
The 2013 Airservices Australia report revealed some firefighters had levels of PFOS — a type of PFAS chemical — from 10 to nearly 20 times higher than the general population.
But the report also asserted that “there are no definite health issues known to be associated with these chemicals”.
One firefighter in Rockhampton was found to have a PFOS level of 391ng/ml parts per billion — more than 20 times the stated median level of 15ng/ml found among the broader Australian population.
Firefighters recorded PFOS levels of 205 in Sydney, 186 in Karratha, 184 on the Gold Coast and 180 in Perth.
The report also found high levels of the related PFHxS chemical.
“The most likely explanation is that PFOS and PFHxS levels are influenced by direct or indirect contact with some AFFF (aqueous film forming foam),” the report stated.
The report also found the firefighters had normal levels of some other types of PFAS chemicals, including PFOA.
Gold Coast Airport said in a statement that the facility closely follows federal regulatory guidelines regarding PFAS management, which is factored into relevant safety procedures for employees and contractors.
Firefighters had up to 40 hours’ exposure per year: report
Airservices Australia said it would run a second detailed staff exposure study “in the coming year”.
“We believe we are the first firefighting service in the world to conduct a longitudinal study of exposure levels, which will contribute to the broader science on this subject,” it said.
A health study from 2010 also released to the ABC under FOI estimated between several hundred and 2,000 Airservices staff could have been exposed to PFAS chemicals in their work.
The study noted no records were kept on Airservices staff exposure to PFAS chemicals and that those levels could only be estimated.
It said firefighters were likely to have had up to 40 hours’ exposure per year and noted reports firefighters had been “covered” in the foam at times, and some had reported using their bare hand to check levels in tanks.
But it found the overall exposure of firefighters at airports likely to be low to moderate.
The study found there were no records of what Airservices staff had been exposed to. (1 News Express)
Airports are not the only sites dealing with this contamination.
Defence bases across Australia have been contaminated, with one expert warning landfill sites, large manufacturing plants and industrial areas and anywhere there has had a large fuel or chemical fire in the past 50 years are also likely to be contaminated.
Residents in the Queensland town of Oakey launched a class action lawsuit against Defence last year, seeking $200 million in damages caused by PFAS contamination from the Oakey Army Aviation Centre.
In the United States, Reuters news agency reported in February that manufacturer 3M had settled a $850 million suit by the state of Minnesota, where it produced PFAS chemicals.
The State of Minnesota had alleged waterways were polluted.