Parliamentary inquiry calls for ban on PFAS-based firefighting foams

written by australianaviation.com.au | December 4, 2018
File image of an RAAF Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting vehicle. (Defence)

A federal parliamentary committee has called for a ban on the use of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) used for aviation fire-fighting on military bases and the establishment of a coordinator-general to manage the fallout from their use.

The recommendations were two of nine included in the report by a Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade inquiry into the management of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination in and around Australian Defence Force (ADF) bases.

“The Committee has recommended that a Coordinator-General be appointed with the authority and resources necessary to more effectively coordinate the whole of Commonwealth Government effort in respect of PFAS contamination and to ensure a clear and consistent approach to community consultations and to cooperation with state, territory and local governments,” said the foreward to the report, published on Monday.

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PFAS is a man-made chemical that that has been commonly used in firefighting foams. The best-known examples of PFAS are perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS).

“PFAS have not been proven to cause any specific illnesses in humans”, a Department of Health fact sheet says.

“However, since these chemicals remain in humans and the environment for many years, it is recommended that as a precaution human exposure to PFAS be minimised,” the fact sheet says.

“Research into potential health effects of PFAS is ongoing around the world. To date there is not enough information available to definitively say what, if any, health effects may be caused by exposure to PFAS.”

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The Commonwealth has commissioned the Australian National University to conduct a health study that looks at patterns of disease in a population at Katherine in the Northern Territory, Oakey in Queensland and Williamtown in New South Wales.

The inquiry was established in December 2017 and conducted by a sub-committee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.

The terms of reference asked the committee to consider the extent of contamination in and around Defence bases, the response of agencies such as the Department of Defence and Health, as well as the Australian Defence Force.

Further, it also asked the committee to consider the communication and coordination between all levels of government and the community, the adequacy of health advice and testing, the adequacy of environmental and human health standards, remediation works at the bases and the extent of the financial impact to affected businesses and individuals.

As part of its investigation, the PFAS sub-committee held hearings in Katherine, Williamtown and Oakey, as well as in Canberra.

The sub-committee chair Andrew Laming MP said thanked those who made submissions to the inquiry and appeared to give evidence in person at public and in-camera hearings.

“The hearings at Katherine, Williamtown and Oakey were remarkable for the intensity of the emotion that could not be masked,” Laming said in the foreword to the report.

“These communities are hurt and angered by the effects of PFAS contamination, and the delays and inadequacies in the response to its discovery, have had on their lives, their families and their communities.

“For most citizens, and even expert witnesses, appearing before a parliamentary committee can be a daunting prospect at the best of times. For many of our witnesses it was a particularly distressing experience to explain before strangers how they and their families have been affected by PFAS contamination. I trust that this report honours their effort.”

The role of the coordinator-general would be coordinate ongoing monitoring of PFAS levels at specific sites, to offer an effective, transparent and consistent response to the issue of PFAS contamination and identify “gaps and priorities for investigation and remediation, based on the extent of contamination and risk to human and environmental health in each area”, the report said.

The office of the coordinator-general would work across portfolios and with state, territory and local governments, and report annually to the federal Parliament.

Meanwhile, the other eight recommendations called on the federal government to “upscale its investment in the containment of PFAS contamination plumes”, to review the existing advice in relation to the human health effects of PFAS exposure, including to acknowledge the potential links to certain medical conditions, and to try to increase participation in the voluntary blood testing program.

It also suggested the Australian Government offer free, individualised case management and financial counselling services to those affected by PFAS contamination.

Reports raises question of compensation

Recommendation five in the report called for a compensation scheme to be set up to assist property owners and businesses in affected areas for “demonstrated, quantifiable financial losses associated with PFAS contamination that has emanated from Defence bases”.

“The compensation scheme should be flexible enough to accommodate a variety of individual circumstances,” the report said.

“Acceptance of an offer for compensation in respect of their property’s utility or value should not preclude the person from a future claim in relation to any human health effects that may be found, as a result of future research, to be attributable to PFAS exposure.”

The report noted evidence during the hearings property prices of those living within PFAS affected areas has fallen sharply, leaving people unable to sell their home to move away and in a state of “financial limbo”.

Further, residents were restricted in their activities due to the PFAS issue.

“Many residents told the Committee that they lived in, or had moved to their area, for lifestyle reasons, but that this lifestyle was no longer possible due to the precautionary measures associated with the PFAS contamination,” the report said.

As far as the use of PFAS chemicals was concerned, the report called on the Australian Government to “ban nationally the use of, contain, and ultimately safely destroy, long chain PFAS-based firefighting foams”, including those containing PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS, place restrictions on the use of some short-chain PFAS and encourage the use of PFAS-free alternatives where possible.

It also recommended an independent review of environmental regulation of Commonwealth land be conducted.

The full report can be read on the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade’s website.

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