PFOS/PFOA in NZ

Firefighting foam manufactured with PFOS and PFOA were the standard since the 1970s until the early 2000s in international aviation because these foams put out liquid fuel fires quickly, thus improving safety for passengers, air crew and fire fighters.

Since 2011, no import, manufacture or use of PFOS compounds is permitted in New Zealand, other than for specified, identified uses, such as laboratory analysis.

The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) has been advised by its suppliers that since 2002 they have not supplied to NZDF any foam products containing PFOS or PFOA above trace levels.

Fire and Emergency NZ (FENZ) uses two types of foams to fight fires. Class A foams are used for vegetation fires and house fires and make up about 95% of all the foam used by FENZ at incidents. These foams contain wetting agents, similar to detergents, and do not contain fluorinated compounds.

Class B foams are used for fighting fires involving flammable liquids such as petrol and crude oil. FENZ has had the bulk of its Class B foam stocks chemically analysed, and has confirmed that none of these products contain any PFOS or PFOA.

FENZ is taking a precautionary approach and instructing its personnel not to use the small amount of type of Class B foams that has not been tested as at this stage they can’t be completely assured that they don’t contain PFOS or PFOA.

Questions and answers

What might have caused contamination in New Zealand?

The source of the contamination is thought to be the repeated use of specialised firefighting foam manufactured from PFOS and PFOA, which have historically been used to fight fires involving highly volatile liquid fuels (e.g. oil or petrol). It is not used for fighting other forms of fire, e.g. buildings, forests etc.  

Who uses PFOS/PFOA firefighting foams?

Until recently foams manufactured from PFOS or PFOA were widely used internationally, particularly for training purposes because they were the most effective means of extinguishing highly volatile liquid fuel fires and there were no effective alternatives.

These are now no longer used in training by NZDF and NZDF has been advised by its suppliers that since 2002 they have not supplied to NZDF any foam products containing PFOS or PFOA above trace levels.

Fire and Emergency NZ are now actively investigating the presence of PFOS and PFOA in the foams they would use in an emergency. They have tested the bulk of their Class B foam and confirm it does not contain PFOS or PFOA. Class A firefighting foam, used at 95% of incidents including house and vegetation fires has never contained PFOS, PFOA, or any PFAS substances.

The use of these foams has been standard in international aviation. Organisations include the military, emergency services, commercial firefighters (at airports or oil refineries). 

What is the NZDF doing about firefighting foams with PFOS/PFOA?

NZDF personnel no longer train with firefighting foam manufactured with PFOS and PFOA. The NZDF has been advised by its suppliers that since 2002 they have not supplied to NZDF any foam products containing PFOS or PFOA above trace levels.

What type of foams does Fire and Emergency NZ use to fight fires?

Fire and Emergency NZ uses two types of foams to fight fires. Class A foams are used for vegetation fires and house fires and make up about 95% of all the foam used by FENZ at incidents. These foams contain wetting agents, similar to detergents, and do not contain fluorinated compounds.

Class B foams are used for fighting fires involving flammable liquids such as petrol and crude oil. FENZ has had the bulk of its Class B foam stocks chemically analysed, and has confirmed that none of these products contain any PFOS or PFOA.

FENZ is taking a precautionary approach and instructing its personnel not to use the small amount of type of Class B foams that has not been tested as at this stage they can’t be completely assured that they don’t contain PFOS or PFOA. 

What has been done to reduce their impact?

In 2001 The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants was adopted and put into effect by the United Nations Environment Programme. New Zealand is a party to the Convention. PFOS was listed as a persistent organic pollutant (POP) under the Stockholm Convention in 2009, with effect from August 2010.  Consequential amendments to the HSNO Act were made in August 2011. This means that no import, use or manufacture of PFOS compounds is permitted, other than for specific, identified uses, such as for laboratory analysis.

In New Zealand, PFOS had already been excluded from EPA’s Firefighting Chemicals Group Standard in 2006, which meant there was no standing authority to use it.

PFOA was also excluded from the 2006 Firefighting Chemicals Group Standard. There are currently no other restrictions on the use of PFOA as a component of substances or articles under the HSNO Act. However, PFOA does not itself have an approval under the HSNO Act, so it cannot be imported or manufactured as a stand-alone chemical compound.

PFOA is currently being assessed by the Stockholm Convention Persistent Organic Pollutant (POP) Review Committee, on which New Zealand has a member, and is likely to be listed as a POP in 2019. This would likely lead to a prohibition in New Zealand in 2020, meaning all uses of PFOA would be restricted, as for PFOS.

Who monitors compliance with these restrictions on persistent organic pollutants (POPs)?

The EPA became responsible for these provisions from 1 December 2017, as a result of amendments to the HSNO Act made by the HSNO Amendment Act 2015. Prior to this, WorkSafe and its predecessors were responsible for enforcement.

How long have you been investigating? 

Defence forces worldwide, including Australia, have found PFOS and PFOA contamination in soils and groundwater associated with firefighting foam practice areas. This prompted NZDF to include testing for this when undertaking investigations on its bases.

PFOS and PFOA are considered emerging contaminants and the international knowledge has been evolving.

NZDF received the first results of its current, ongoing investigation about the fire training area at RNZAF Base Ohakea in April 2015.

There were no New Zealand standards at that time and NZDF sought technical expertise to develop standardised investigation and reporting specifications. In carrying out testing, priority was given to NZDF locations where there were active training facilities and where drinking water was potentially affected.

In April 2017, the Australian Department of Health issued health based drinking guidance values for use in site investigations. These guidance levels, which have now been accepted as interim guidance levels by New Zealand’s Ministry of Health, was based on a report prepared by Food Standards Australia New Zealand. NZDF’s tests confirmed concentrations of PFOS and PFOA compounds above these guidelines.

In September 2017 modelling of groundwater flows indicated the potential for PFOS and PFOA concentrations in groundwater in an area beyond the Ohakea base boundary, and NZDF commenced planning to consult with potentially affected landowners to test water on their properties, and included neighbouring land around Woodbourne to gain more information there.

We have been getting the technical and government help needed to provide advice and inform those potentially affected.

Is this the same as the situation in Australia?

The situation in New Zealand is on a much smaller scale both in area and concentration.

At just one Australian airforce site (RAAF Williamtown) the Australian Defence Force used on average 74,000 litres of PFOS/PFOA firefighting foam per year for almost 30 years.

For comparison, NZDF estimates that usage of PFOS/PFOA firefighting foam at each of Ohakea and Woodbourne site was on average 1,000 litres per year over a similar period.

A 2013 study found that New Zealanders generally had PFOS levels in their blood that were lower than found in the blood of people in the USA, Canada, Germany and Australia and PFOA levels were similar or lower.

 

Reviewed:
06/12/17