21 Sep 2018

Firefighters refused free toxic-chemicals blood test

5:47 pm on 21 September 2018

Fire and Emergency New Zealand is refusing to pay for blood tests for firefighters concerned about exposure to the damaging chemicals PFAS.

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Two firefighters have asked the agency to pay for blood tests. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Instead the organisation said it funded regular health checks, where firefighters could raise any specific concerns.

Investigations are underway nationwide into the extent of contamination of soil and water by toxic chemicals in firefighting foam.

Two firefighters have asked the agency to pay for blood tests; requests linked to exposure before they joined Fire and Emergency.

But in an internal document obtained by RNZ, Fire and Emergency said it "does not recommend or support blood tests for PFAS for our firefighters at this time".

The agency's public statement did not say that today.

Instead, its national commander urban, Paul McGill, only stated that "the Ministry of Health does not recommend blood tests, but all our firefighters are encouraged to undertake regular health checks, which are funded by Fire and Emergency New Zealand, and if they have concerns, are able to raise them with their doctors".

He also did not state whether the agency would pay for the blood tests, only that the two people who'd asked had "been advised of our position on testing".

When asked to clarify if this meant it would not fund the tests, a FENZ spokesman invited RNZ to "interpret" what it meant.

Firefighters were unlikely to have had much exposure to the foam chemicals through their skin, Mr McGill said.

"Exposure through skin carries a low risk because skin absorbs PFAS poorly," he said.

"The risk is further reduced... because standard operating practice is to wear personal protective equipment when handling foam."

A blood test to identify exposure to PFAS costs several hundred dollars.

The government is funding blood tests for people whose drinking water is in the contaminated zone outside Ohakea defence base.

After locals complained at having to undergo hour-long interviews with a health official to try to get a test, the interview was dropped last month to make it easier to get a test.

Australian response

In Australia, NSW health authorities also advise against blood testing.

The rationale is that the tests "have no current value in informing clinical management, including diagnosis, treatment or prognosis in terms of increased risk of particular conditions over time".

But in some Australian and US states testing of firefighters is ongoing, as well as government-funded, large-scale research into the health impacts on firefighters from the chemicals in foam.

FENZ has yet to carry out any tests for foam chemical contamination of water or soil at its main training sites in Mt Wellington, Rotorua and Kilbirnie.

It was still gathering other information and had so far not identified any sites of immediate concern, it said.

FENZ has no solid records relating to its use of PFAS-containing foams, but officials said 95 percent of the foam it had used for years did not contain these long-lasting, damaging compounds.

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