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Former Pearce air base firefighters say they were exposed to firefighting foam containing PFAS every shift and encouraged to treat it as a high-grade detergent. Illustration: JOANNE BURETTE

Pearce fireys speak out

FORMER firefighters from Pearce air base say the Department of Defence should be testing all firefighters who have been exposed to toxic chemicals, which are part of an on-going investigation.

The firefighters are also angry no-one from the department has contacted them to let them know there is a problem with the aqueous film forming foams they say they were in contact with every day they worked at Pearce air base.

Three firefighters who used to work at the air base Jim, Bob and Mack (not their real names) said the firefighting foams they were exposed to contained perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

The firefighters said every shift they tested fire trucks to make sure they were making foam and made sure tanks were topped up.

All three said firefighters had been encouraged to treat the foam as a high-grade detergent and to put their hands in it.

They said checking the level of a tank meant sticking their arm in the tank so they often had an arm almost up to the elbow in the mixture.

The tests were not always carried out in the same spot so the chemicals were spread around the base.

“Also the foam was dumped or sprayed out before a truck was serviced,’’ they said.

They also worried the basic protective gear they had worn would have given them little protection and that they most likely exposed their families to the chemicals when their gear was washed at home.

All three said they have some health issues associated by some researchers with the toxic chemicals.

National Toxics Network senior advisor Mariann Lloyd-Smith, who is also the International POPs Elimination Network senior policy advisor said there was no argument for the continued use of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in any firefighting foams as they were toxic and bioaccumulative, which meant they built up in all living organisms.

“The need to protect firefighters to the greatest degree possible as well as protection of the environment and communities is the main objective.”

She said following the class action between Dupont (a manufacturer of Teflon which contains PFOA) and US residents in the vicinity of a major contamination incident the jointly established C8 Science Panel concluded PFOA could cause kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and medically diagnosed high cholesterol in humans.

Toxic mess for McGowan (Echo News, March 23) reported Edith Cowan University researchers in December last year as saying the presence of perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS), PFOA and PFOS in the blood of pregnant women had previously been associated with smaller birth weights.

PFAS information developed by the Environmental Health Standing Committee (enHealth) and endorsed by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee in June 2016 said PFOS and PFOA were readily absorbed through the gut, and once the chemicals were in a person’s body it took about two to nine years, depending on the study, before those levels went down by half, even if no more was taken in.

The Department of Defence said the Department of Health had established a voluntary blood testing program for people who work or live, or have worked or lived, in Williamtown and Oakey.

A spokesman said this included people currently living elsewhere who previously lived or worked at those places.

“The voluntary blood testing program is being conducted in conjunction with an epidemiological study and these activities are focussed on the Oakey and Williamtown communities because the extent of contamination and the exposure pathways are well understood,’’ he said.

“The extent of contamination at other sites, including RAAF Base Pearce, is still being determined.

“These activities at Williamtown and Oakey will contribute to our understanding of the potential health risks associated with PFAS and inform decisions on the potential for similar activities at other sites in the future.’’

He said the health and safety of all personnel working at Defence properties was a primary concern of the department.

“When assessing and managing any risks to human health posed by PFOS and PFOA, Defence [uses] guidance statements issued by enHealth.

“The enHealth statements advise there is no consistent evidence that exposure to PFOS and PFOA causes adverse human health effects.

“But because these chemicals persist in humans and the environment, enHealth recommends human exposure  is minimised as a precaution.”

By Anita McInnes

About Anita

Anita Mcinnes received a highly commended in the 2009 WA Media Awards suburban section for her reporting. Two of her sons were born at Swan District Hospital and for many years she was a partner in a small business, which operated in the Gingin-Muchea-Bullsbrook area. As a mature age student Anita studied journalism at Curtin University before working in Busselton, Dunsborough and Rockingham with West Regionals. She says the best part of her job is meeting eastern suburb residents and visiting the many attractions in the area.

One comment

  1. sparkingthebrain

    Worldwide scientific community unites to highlight that PFASs substances are persistent and harmful – which includes C6 fluorinated AFFF foams – The Madrid Statement documents widespread scientific consensus regarding the persistence and potential for harm of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), and lays out a roadmap to gather needed information and prevent further harm.

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