The Williamtown RAAF Base water contamination scandal has prompted NSW Fire and Rescue to act

NSW Fire and Rescue has offered blood tests for all firefighters who believe they were exposed to fire fighting foam contaminants in the past – and will pay for the tests – in a move that puts pressure on the Department of Defence to make a similar offer to Defence personnel.

NSW Fire and Rescue has offered the voluntary testing along with testing its sites across NSW for foam contaminants perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), and making a commitment to contain potentially affected soil and water.

Both commitments put pressure on Defence which has so far failed to commit to stopping contaminants leaving Williamtown RAAF Base in surface and groundwater leaking into surrounding areas.   

The fire authority is investigating its use of the foam up to 2007 after the NSW Government made public in September last year that PFOS and PFOA had been leaving Williamtown Base into surrounding areas for an unknown number of years.

The offer of voluntary blood testing for firefighters follows NSW Environment Protection Authority confirmation of high PFOS and PFOA levels in NSW Fire and Rescue training area run-off ponds at Albion Park and Londonderry in early February.

It also follows a Department of Defence decision to launch a rolling program of testing for PFOS and PFOA at Defence sites across Australia on the back of the Williamtown scandal.

In a message to retired firefighters NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner Greg Mullins said the fire authority was working with the EPA as it identified and investigated commercial and government sites across the state where fire fighting foams had been used in the past.

“While there are no international set standards for PFOS/PFOA levels, or established facts known about the chemicals’ possible impact on human health, we will be taking a ‘worst case’, comprehensive approach,” Commissioner Mullins said.

He directed that voluntary blood tests be made available to any employee from before 2007 who wanted it after consultation with the union, and despite the Department of Health recommending against blood tests.

“Whilst there are no identified health affects definitely associated with PFOS/PFOA, their presence in the environment and in humans is emerging as national and international issues of concern,” Commissioner Mullins said.

NSW Fire and Rescue began phasing out fire fighting foams from 2000 and ceased its use by 2007.

Retired Corlette firefighter Geoff Zipper, 66, said the move showed NSW Fire and Rescue had a duty of care to firefighters who trained and used the product extensively and “ended up with it all over ourselves”.

Mr Zipper was medically retired in 2006 after he was diagnosed with bladder cancer.

“We’re told that PFOS and PFOA is supposed to be out of our systems after a certain number of years. It’s been 10 years since I retired and if that information is correct I shouldn’t have elevated PFOS and PFOA levels in my system,” Mr Zipper said.

“I believe I got my cancer because of working with so many chemicals as a fireman over the years. This is an emerging contaminant so there’s a lot that we don’t know. Blood tests will at least provide some information.

“The Department of Defence should follow suit because clearly a lot of Defence personnel have been in contact with it.”