NZ's in-use firefighting foams banned overseas

8:45 am on 29 March 2018

Analysis - New Zealand firefighters are using foams most of Australia ditched years ago over environmental and health fears, while outdated testing here also fails to pick up nasty chemicals.

Firefighting foam (file photo)

Firefighting foams are used to put out fuel-based fires. Photo: 123RF

New Zealand has banned of two types of firefighting foam - PFOS and PFOA - but not soon enough to stop groundwater contamination from foam in Manawatū, Auckland, Marlborough and Christchurch.

Some drinking water is also contaminated to an unknown extent.

These chemicals are part of the PFAS family containing hundreds of manmade, persistent chemicals, Queensland's Department of Environment and Science noted it in a 2016 presentation.

"Not just PFOS & PFOA!," it said.

"All are - or transform to - indefinitely persistent PFAS compounds that don't break down," it said, with "rapidly emerging indications" of low levels having long-term adverse effects on human health and the environment.

The fluorine bond with carbon is the problem. At least four types of foams with this fluorine in them are still being used by New Zealand fire brigades and Defence.

Fire and Emergency told RNZ in an Official Information Act response it had "not been satisfied that there is a fluorine-free foam that will effectively combat the range of liquid fuel fires".

It was "working with international partners ... to explore and test new fluorine-free foams" and would adopt just one as soon as possible, based foremost on it having a low environmental impact, it said.

However, all fire services in Australia except Tasmania and Western Australia already use only fluorine-free foams, and Western Australia is now moving towards that.

Queensland's fire service has not purchased any fluorine foams since 2003, Victoria's urban and rural brigades cut back on their use years before going fully fluorine-free in 2016, and New South Wales has made similar moves within the last year.

The entire state of South Australia banned all fluorine firefighting foams last month, while Queensland state has had a virtual ban on them for almost two years.

Most of Australia's airports have already gone fluorine-free. Heathrow Airport in London is also fluorine-free.

All foams cause environmental damage, with fluorine-free it's in the short-term - such as killing fish for a time - but flourine foams persist for a very long time.

Some industry voices still hold to Fire and Emergency's position that fluorine-free foams are not yet effective enough, but tests last year by Dallas Fort Worth fire crews showed the differences in effectiveness with flourine foam were virtually indistinguishable.

"The operational testing carried out demonstrated that the fluorine-free foam used would have been totally suitable for aviation firefighting had this been allowed under the terms of the FAA qualified product listing," a commentary said.

Just two weeks ago a New Zealand government official turned up, for the first time, at an Australian conference on fluorine-free foams asking for information.

That official was from the Environment Ministry, which is the lead agency on New Zealand's foam contamination investigations. RNZ has asked this official for comment but not heard back.

The Ministry has answered very few of RNZ's questions about foam for almost three weeks.

Fire and Emergency had suggested that some fluorine-free foams would not work well unless its firetrucks were modified.

There would however be a cost to removing all traces of fluorine from firetrucks. In Australia, it cost about $1 million to clean about 80 firetrucks. **

Airservices Australia, which runs most of that country’s airports, replaced its trucks some years ago rather than decontaminate them. 

A source told RNZ Fire and Emergency's resistance to using non-flourine foams was also about training and personnel, and wanting to stick with familiar products.

NZ foam testing outdated

Victoria's fire brigades are now also very strict on determining exactly what is inside each foam.

This requires testing using the most sensitive test - called TOPA or Top Assay - which has been the gold standard for at least two years.

RNZ understands the only study Fire and Emergency New Zealand had done, by ESR last year, did not use this TOPA testing.

Standard testing is not good enough to spot many hidden chemical compounds, called Per- and Poly-fluoroalkyl Substances: PFAS.

PFAS is a manmade chemical used in the likes of non-stick pans and raincoats, and is now also widely present in trace amounts in soil.

However, there have been fears over the effects on health and environment.

All research so far on long-term impacts of PFAS exposure is inconclusive, which is the thrust of the New Zealand Health Ministry's advice.

However, Queensland's Department of Environment and Science lists the following "possible and probable" results:

  • Reproductive impairment
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Endocrine disruption
  • Developmental impairment
  • Immune system depression
  • Cholesterol elevation
  • Vaccine interference
  • Testicular & kidney cancer
  • Early menopause
  • Delayed puberty
  • ADHD

Germany is most awake to the overall threat and has been pushing for severe restrictions on them.

In the US, Washington signed a Bill this week to ban PFASs from all food packaging from 2022.

In New Zealand, most of the focus has been on the two banned PFASs - PFOA and PFOS - rather than all the others still in use.

"It is currently believed that the combination of chemicals used in firefighting foams can have direct and indirect, acute and chronic impacts on biota, soils and waterways through their persistence, bioaccumulation, toxicity and biochemical oxygen demand ... when they are released and degrade," Victoria's Operational Use of Firefighting Foam Policy* said.

In addition, some types of foams - including those used in New Zealand - degrade into PFOA over time.

Queensland Fire Service said "some fluorinated foams have components called fluorotelomers that transform into PFOA."

Fire and Emergency denied this, but its own ESR study said as much.

PFOA has been more explicitly linked to cancer, but New Zealand drinking water guidelines allow for eight times as much compared to PFOS.

The Defence Force and Fire and Emergency have both claimed New Zealand crews may have used relatively little foam over the years compared with other countries, however they have not kept careful track of just how much foam they have used in training so that is also uncertain.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians has also criticised Australia's health advice on the foams, which New Zealand's Ministry of Health modelled its own advice on, as weak and "confusing".

Its submission to an Australian federal Health Department expert health panel said the advice "weakens approaches that apply the precautionary principle when advising the public about food and water consumption at sites potentially contaminated with PFAS".

"We advocate for a change to the national health advice that incorporates the latest international evidence for adverse human health effects."

* Read the full text of Victoria's Operational Use of Firefighting Foam Policy:

** A previous version of this article incorrectly said the cost of cleaning the firetrucks was $1m per truck. 

  • Contamination in Bulls proves mysterious
  • Toxic foam: Defence Force didn't tell council of water risks
  • Councillor calls for inquiry over toxic foam
  • Council briefings due as foam alarm spreads
  • Defence Force knew about contamination for two years