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Perfluorinated chemical site contamination

The Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (EHP) is investigating a spill of firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals, including perfluorooctanoic acid (known as PFOA), which occurred on Monday 10 April 2017 at the Brisbane Airport.

The spill included a release of foam concentrate in to Boggy Creek and the Brisbane River.

On the advice of Queensland’s Chief Health Officer, the Queensland Government has advised commercial and recreational fishers to avoid consumption of seafood caught in the investigation area until the results of EHP’s investigations are known—this includes the vicinity of Boggy Creek and the Brisbane River, from the mouth of Bulimba Creek and Bulwer Island to the river mouth and north along the shoreline to Nudgee Beach.

A comprehensive monitoring program for water quality, sediment, fish, prawns and crabs is currently underway. The investigation area initially included six water sampling locations (PDF, 475KB), as well as a control location that is located outside the investigation area at Indooroopilly. This was further complemented by more widespread water quality, sediment, fish and crustacean sampling locations (PDF, 315KB). Finalised testing results are available online.

For more information: Firefighting foam spillage at Brisbane airport.

Fire-fighting foam containing perfluorinated substances such as perfluorooctane sulfonate (known as PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (known as PFOA) were used in fire-fighting and fire-fighting training from the 1970s to the mid-2000s.

Use of the foams occurred at various Australian sites including civil airports, military air bases, large fuel storage terminals and refineries and ports.

These foams are known to have been used at a number of sites in Queensland.

About perfluorinated chemicals

Use of the chemicals

Per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) such as PFOS and PFOA are a group of manufactured chemicals.

PFAS have been used since the 1950s in a range of common household products and specialty applications, including in the manufacture of non-stick cookware, fabric, furniture and carpet stain protection applications and food packaging.

The substances are not manufactured in Australia and are no longer directly used in consumer products however.

As well as consumer products, PFASs have also been previously used in some industrial processes, including in certain types of fire-fighting foams.

Firefighting foams containing PFOS and PFOA were banned in Queensland in July 2016 and are being phased out.

Impacts and risks

PFASs are commonly found in the environment at low levels due to their wide-spread use in consumer and speciality products over many decades.

According to the Commonwealth Department of Health’s Environmental Health Standing Committee (enHealth), the substances are of concern because they are broken down very slowly in the environment. They can persist for a long time and can travel long distances in water and air currents.

PFASs are found at very low levels in the blood of the general population around the world. The general public is exposed to small amounts of PFOS and PFOA in everyday life.

Levels of PFAS in the blood will decrease over time if exposure is minimised.

The effects of exposure to PFASs to human health are currently unknown, but the potential for adverse health effects cannot be excluded.

It takes a long time for levels of PFASs to reduce in humans so there is a risk that continued exposure to PFOS and PFOA could result in adverse health effects due to the accumulation of chemicals in the body over time.

Queensland Health supports the nationally agreed guidelines on PFASs, and has prepared a fact sheet (PDF, 95KB) with information about PFASs and risks.

The most important thing to do for residents that live in or near a contaminated area is to reduce exposure to PFASs.

In areas where contamination of water has been identified (e.g. in underground, springs, water bores, dams, ponds or creeks), human exposure can be minimised by:

  • Not drinking the water or using it to prepare food
  • Not consuming food products (e.g. eggs, milk, fish, crustaceans (prawns/yabbies/crabs), fruit or vegetables) grown or produced using, or in, contaminated water.
  • avoiding or minimising the use of the water for showering/bathing, sprinklers or to fill swimming pools or paddling pools due to the possibility of unintentionally drinking the water

Read Queensland Health’s PFASs fact sheet (PDF, 95KB).

Queensland sites

The Queensland Government has been informed that investigations are being undertaken at the following Queensland locations due to the historic use of PFAS foam in fire training activities.

It is working with the entities that have previously used PFAS foam at these locations, and other relevant authorities. 

Further information and links, including about other sites, will be added to this page as they come to hand so please check back regularly.

Locations

Table 1: Military locations in Queensland where PFAS foam has been previously used in fire training activities and is subject to a detailed investigation

Location

Responsible organisation

Investigation activity

More information

Oakey (Army Aviation Centre Oakey)

The Department of Defence

Detailed environmental investigation—commenced 2015

Townsville (RAAF Base Townsville)

The Department of Defence

Detailed environmental investigation—to commence in 2017

Amberley (RAAF Base Amberley)

The Department of Defence

Detailed environmental investigation—to commence in 2017

Airservices Australia—a Commonwealth organisation—has informed the Queensland Government that it is undertaking site investigations at the following Queensland airport locations. See the full list of Australian airport locations (see Appendix D) Airservices Australia has identified in relation to PFAS foam use.

Table 2: Airport locations in Queensland where the Queensland Government has been informed that investigations are underway

Location

Responsible organisation

Investigation activity

More information

Brisbane

Airservices Australia

Site investigation commenced.

Cairns

Airservices Australia

Site investigation commenced.

Coolangatta (Gold Coast)

Airservices Australia

Site investigation underway with preliminary sampling completed.

Hamilton Island

Airservices Australia

Site investigation commenced.

Mackay

Airservices Australia

Site investigation commenced.

Rockhampton

Airservices Australia

Site investigation commenced.

Townsville

Airservices Australia

Site investigation commenced.

Sunshine Coast 

Airservices Australia 

Site investigation commenced.

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services

Prior to 2003, the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) purchased fluorinated Aqueous Film Forming Foams (AFFF) along with other types of foam such as protein based foams. QFES has not purchased fluorinated AFFF since 2003, at which time it commenced purchasing fluorine free foams.

In 2016 QFES tested soil and in-ground water tanks where available at Enoggera, Cairns, Rockhampton, Southport, Yeppoon, Townsville and Oakey fire stations to identify the levels of PFOAs and PFOS and related substances at these locations. The test results at all locations were compared against the Standing Committee of Environmental Health (enHealth) interim screening values. 

These water quality values have been developed for drinking water use and recreational contact, such as swimming and boating, and were used by QFES as an initial screening check.

Environmental risks and other risks will be screened separately. The results indicate that PFOS and PFOA levels in the water contained to the pits are below the recreational water guideline value.

However, water from the pits at both Cairns and Enoggera exceeded the enHealth interim drinking water guideline values, which are significantly lower values as compared to the recreational water guideline values.

The other locations identified above were below the enHealth interim drinking water guideline values.

QFES has also tested the in-ground water tanks at Cairns South, Forrest Beach, Ayr, Home Hill, Mt Isa, Airlie beach, Dysart, Mackay, Sarina, Rockhampton, Gladstone, Bundaberg, Maryborough, Noosa Heads, Charleville, Arana Hills, Annerley, Windsor, Roma St, Kemp Place and QCESA (Whyte Island). These results are being assessed.

Key contacts

Anyone concerned about their own health or that of family members should talk to their GP or call 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84).

Community members who have questions or concerns can contact the Department of Defence
Airservices Australia can also be contacted
QFES employees

Any current or past member of the QFES workforce who has personal concerns about exposure to AFFF, should contact PFFFEnquiriesQFES@qfes.qld.gov.au.

Licence
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia (CC BY 3.0)
Last updated
28 April 2017

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