Brisbane’s firefighting foam spill and PFOA

From ToxicLeaks

Qantas toxic foam accident[edit | edit source]

On April 10, 2017, a chemical spill at the Qantas Airlines hangar at Australia’s Brisbane Airport sent an unknown amount of highly toxic firefighting foam into the nearby Brisbane River. The total leak of the foam, which contains perfluorinated compounds (PFOA, PFOS), amounted to 22,000 liters. Australian and regional Queensland authorities said about three-fourths of the foam was captured in an onsite containment system, but the rest escaped into the river and the near shore waters where the river reaches the Moreton Bay and Fisherman Island. Qantas notified Australian authorities the next day.

The airlines issued a statement on April 20 confirming that the spill reached nearby waterways, although containment bunding was deployed. Qantas said the fire retardant is required under aviation safety guidelines to be kept in the hangar, despite the fact that Queensland government has banned FPOA and related perfluorinate use in the territory. “There are few fire retardant products available around the world that meet aviation standards for use in an aircraft hangar. We are working as quickly as possible to replace it,” the company said, defending its use because the foam storage falls under federal policies.

Environmental authorities in Queensland say a faulty sprinkler system in the Qantas hangar at Brisbane led to the release, which is being described as an environmental disaster that will continue for decades.

In the short term, Australian activists and citizens question a three-day delay on public health warnings. Fishing and seafood businesses unknowingly sold potentially contaminated product for days. They are also concerned about the long-term impacts to their industry, given that perfluorinates do not readily decompose – as long-chain polymers, they are essentially plastics – and may taint waters for 20 years.

This perfluorinate disaster came as Australia is grappling with PFOA/PFOS contamination in soils and waters at about a half dozen locations near airports and military bases. Military officials say there may be up to 18 sites where it is no longer safe to use the water, including Oakley. Residents there have been tested with 44 times the national average on their bodies, and have been told by government officials not to drink or bathe in the contaminated water. They are responding with class action litigation.

History and potential health impacts[edit | edit source]

The Australian government refers to perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) as an “emerging” concern and in February and early April 2017 issued new research findings and guidelines. The official statements say that health risks of PFAO/PFOS are inconclusive, but many medical and environmental professionals have determined otherwise. That’s based in part by previous exposure cases in the United States.

It’s there that the history of perfluorinates dates back to World War II and the Manhattan Project. Invented by the DuPont Company, the polymers proved useful in Teflon™ coating for cookware, protective clothing, food packaging and a host of other products ubiquitous in daily life. For decades, DuPont officials knew that health risks attached to PFOA and related chemicals. A 2015 report from the Environmental Working Group showed that in 1973, the company’s own scientists found there was no “safe level” in animals, and in 1976 the 3M company – a DuPont supplier – tested workers and found exposure in nearly every blood sample. In 1981, they knew the children of DuPont workers were born with birth defects. Cases of tainted water in the American states of West Virginia and Ohio led to legal battles similar to those emerging in Australia, but they also led to an independent scientific review.

From 2005 through 2013, a panel of epidemiologists – Tony Fletcher, David Savitz, and Kyle Steenland – conducted interviews and took samples from 69,000 residents representing 80 percent of the population. They found probable links to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, pregnancy-induced hypertension and diagnosed high cholesterol. All told, the groundbreaking research found probable links between PFOA and 55 different diseases, published in 35 peer-reviewed publications.

The perfluorinate is both biopersistent – meaning that it stays in an environment over time without quickly breaking down – and bioacculumative, because repeated exposure to the chemical builds up in the body with clearance times measured in years because of the long-chain molecular structure. The understanding of human health risks continues to evolve, but so does the global exposure to PFOA.

Delayed health warning issued[edit | edit source]

To their credit, Australian officials have emphasized that it is long-term exposure to other sources of the same PFOA found in the firefighting foam leak that scientists think presents the greatest health risks. Yet that doesn’t explain why it took Queensland public health officials until Friday, April 14, to warn citizens about a spill that occurred on April 10. Queensland’s chief health officer, Jeannette Young, has advised people to avoid eating seafood caught in waters near the spill, or fish in the area under investigation. The public continued to swim, fish and eat seafood during the delay before the warning was issued, despite the fact that authorities had already discovered a small fish kill related to the PFOA spill site.

Seafood and environmental poisoning[edit | edit source]

The fishing and seafood ban extended from the Brisbane Airport spill site into the Brisbane River and the Moreton Bay. It spanned from the Bulimba Creek, which enters the waterway from the south bank across from the airport site, out to Fisherman Island where the Brisbane River meets the bay and then north to Shorncliffe. The latter is a seaside community about eight kilometers north of the airport, with waterfront recreational facilities including a beach and pier. Between there and the airport are Boondall Wetlands and the Nudgee Beach Reserve, which support Australia’s migratory bird populations. Other species found in the wetlands and bay include whales, dolphins, dugong, sharks and turtles, as well as coral beds, seagrasses and other critical habitats that are located within the perimeter of the PFOA ban.

Also hard-hit is a fishing industry concerned about both the immediate impacts of the spill – in one case, at least 300 kilograms of contaminated prawn were sold before a warning circulated – and the long term effects of PFOA. Fishers felt compromised by the lack of information about the spill, which did not come until a full week after it happened. Queensland prawn trawler operators planned to seek compensation for their mounting losses, and questioned whether the health warnings and ban were truly warranted.

Yet environmental medicine expert Andrew Jeremijenko said any exposure from the Brisbane Airport spill will continue for decades and possibly centuries – adding to Australia’s ongoing concerns over PFOA contamination.