3 Jan 2018

Research into firefighting foam contamination risk begins

6:23 pm on 3 January 2018

Landmark research is beginning to rank the level of risk that poorly-understood contaminants pose, including the toxic and pervasive firefighting foam chemicals now turning up in New Zealand's groundwater.

The now-banned chemicals PFOS and PFOA first triggered health alerts in the US 17 years ago.

But New Zealand only introduced a health advisory maximum acceptable level for the chemicals in drinking water in April this year.

This prompted the Defence Force to admit in December that groundwater was contaminated above these levels at Ohakea and Woodbourne, but it won't say by how much above.

The chemicals have historically been ignored in New Zealand drinking water standards entirely.

"We have very limited information about the level that's out there and the level the public's exposed to," said Dr Louis Tremblay of the Cawthron Institute, particulary when it came to the chemicals' distribution and impact on local species.

New Zealand had been slow to react to the foam chemicals threat, he said. But it was hard to set priorities when there were so many emerging chemical threats and, in this country at least, so little capacity to monitor them.

For instance, he said, there was only one commercial lab currently able to test down to the parts-per-trillion required for the PFAS family the foam chemicals belong to.

Dr Tremblay's first job in the new five-year research project, with $1.1 million government funding, is to equip the first research lab to match that sensitivity, which is becoming more crucial as the nature of the threat from emerging contaminants becomes better understood globally.

Then the measuring will start, to winnow through a list with a thousand-plus names of it of potentially villainous, but so far largely unmonitored, chemicals.

"What we're trying to do is to rank the level of risk of those different pollutants.

"What's important is that we can rapidly identify those families [of chemicals] that are more at risk so that we can better manage it to reduce the overall risk."

New Zealand so far had prioritised its very limited research and action resources on 1080 and vertebrate pesticides, Dr Tremblay said.

"We go after the most at-risk range of chemicals."

However, he conceded that public trust in those setting the research priorities, such as at the Ministry of Health, had been undermined by the Havelock North water contamination inquiry which found the management of drinking water standards was inept.

A sea-change was needed to get ahead of the curve, said Dr Tremblay, so that products - such as those being used to replace PFOS and PFOA now - were properly tested so any risks are identified before they were manufactured, marketed and disseminated.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs