Talks to end NT, Qld airport PFAS foam use
Australia's air services agency is negotiating with Defence to phase out the use of toxic firefighting foam at Northern Territory and Queensland airports as unions demand country-wide blood testing for brigades.
Airservices Australia, the government-owned company which provides firefighting services, phased out the chemicals at all civilian airports from 2010 due to health concerns.
But Defence still uses "minuscule" amounts of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) at its RAAF bases around the country.
The pollutants are still used by Airservices at the joint military and civil airports in Townsville and Darwin at the contractual insistence of Defence.
"At both locations, we have minimised potential exposure to PFAS for our staff by not training with this product, using personal protective equipment and implementing hygiene controls," a spokeswoman said on Thursday.
"Engagement between Airservices and Defence is ongoing in regards to transitioning away... to a PFAS-free foam."
Defence's Steven Grzeskowiak says the product, which is only used in emergency situations, contains trace elements of the inorganic PFAS compounds.
But a firefighting union argues that even though levels are significantly lower than the traditional foam, the pollutants could linger in the environment for centuries.
"Even if it's only a small amount, it nonetheless is contributing to the contamination... and increases potential exposure to our members," United Firefighters Union Aviation branch secretary Henry Lawrence said.
In 2013, Airservices offered voluntary blood tests to staff, and plans to conduct a health study next year which may include more.
Mr Lawrence says that's not good enough and is demanding country-wide testing for all brigades, saying the continued uncertainty is making serving and former firefighters anxious.
"These people are sitting there knowing that they were spraying this stuff around with gay abandon on the bases, but they were told there's nothing to fear," Mr Lawrence said.
Thinking the chemical was harmless, Mr Lawrence said the foam was used for children's slip 'n slides at Darwin barbeques and for washing up dishes at fire stations.
"They're thinking 'god almighty, we've contributed to this'. And even though it wasn't their fault, that doesn't take away the guilt," he said.
Mr Grzeskowiak says quite a few Defence firefighters already have access to blood tests, while the Western Australian and Queensland governments have also announced they will offer the service.
Brisbane Airport is suing Airservices for the contamination of its site, and this week Katherine became the third community to get free blood testing after Oakey in Queensland and Williamtown in NSW, as it considers launching a class action against Defence.