One of Australia’s leading experts on the chemicals used in firefighting foam and Scotchguard, suspected of causing cancer, says the action of Australia’s government on the issue “incomprehensible”.
With three class actions in progress on the health impacts of airport and Defence sites contaminated with the now-banned chemicals previously used in firefighting foams but also present in fabric protectors such as Scotchguard, the issue of dangerous contaminants is in the spotlight.
As the Sydney Morning Herald reported this week, there are about 90 sites across the nation where levels of contamination of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) are a cause for genuine concern, with growing suspicion that the class of chemicals is linked to increased rates of cancer.
- See the Herald’s investigations in the US: Toxic Secrets: The town that 3M built – where kids are dying of cancer
However, according to Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, senior policy advisor at IPEN– the International POPs Elimination Network – these sites are not all we should be concerned about.
The class of man-made compounds called PFASs includes PFOS, which was also used in products such as 3M’s Scotchguard fabric protector before the company discontinued use in the year 2000.
Others are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), found in polymers, non-stick coatings and the feedstock for winter clothing and sports clothing; and perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS), used to make fluoropolymers and as a surfactant for stain protection in paper, textiles, carpets and other products. It is also a breakdown chemical produced from some of the replacement for PFOS in firefighting foams.
PFOS was listed as a banned chemical on the Stockholm Convention in 2009. PFOA and PFHxS are currently being considered for listing.
All of these perfluorinated chemicals share a number of nasty features.
Dr Lloyd-Smith says they have been associated with endocrine disruption, cancers and immune system effects in both humans and animals.
They build up in the human body, as there is no metabolic pathway for them to be excreted or broken down.
They also build up – bioaccumulate – in the environment, and that’s where the big problem lies.
The “forever chemicals” we need to fear
“These are called ‘forever chemicals’ for a reason,” Dr Lloyd-Smith says.
PFHxS is relatively new in terms of research about its presence in the environment and its health impacts.
However, research by the Environmental Working Group in the US found it present as a contaminant in drinking water supplied by 135 water utilities to more than five million people across 23 US states.
There is no US Health Department drinking water guideline for acceptable exposure, although it is included in the Australian drinking water standard.
The chemical is also turning up in blood tests of residents impacted by Defence bases exposed to the contaminant, Dr Lloyd-Smith says.
PFHxS is found in products used for construction, such as structural products that combine metal, expanded polystyrene (EPS) and linings used for cross-decks, walls and ceilings.
EPS products can also contain hexabromides, POPs that are also listed on the Stockholm Convention.
These chemicals are everywhere
Dr Lloyd-Smith says they are supposed to be phased out, with a ruling that during the phase-out period building products using hexabromocyclododecane (HBCDD – a brominated flame retardant) are labelled as containing the hazardous chemicals, but while she has been seeing the products installed “everywhere”, no labelling appears to be evident.
The same EPS products have also been found in oyster farms, where they are in the floats that hold up the netting, she says.
POPs are “in pretty much everything”.
For example, PFOS was at one time ubiquitous in furnishings. A mattress or lounge more than 20 years old may contain it, Dr Lloyd-Smith says, as will carpets and office chairs – anything treated with Scotchguard or similar protection before the year 2000.
Areas around airports where firefighting foams have been used are likely to be contaminated, and if there is any groundwater present, odds are it is PFOS-contaminated.
There are also implications for the recycling industry, as products containing POPs present a potential risk to workers.
Dr Lloyd-Smith says that while there are studies into brominated POPs and recycling workers, far less is known about workers’ exposure to perfluorinated chemicals like PFOS and PFOA. Recycling workers have higher levels of the brominated flame retardant POPs chemicals in their blood than the rest of the population.
So how do we get rid of them?
Europe relies on incineration to manage products containing the perfluorinated chemicals. However, incineration produces toxic byproducts and contaminated ash. Australia has not “bitten the bullet” to establish good non-incineration destruction facilities.
There was a facility, the Ecologic gas phase chemical reduction facility at Kwinana in WA, but it closed down in the early 2000s.
Incineration is not the ultimate answer, even so, as “burning POPs only creates more POPs”.
Landfill is not even a particularly safe place, Dr Lloyd-Smith says.
“Landfills eventually leak. To think they don’t leak is naive at best…”
And where a landfill has measures in place to collect leachates and reticulate them back into the landfill cell, it simply means the level of POPs chemicals builds up.
Ultimately, POPs chemicals like perfluorinated compounds will be around for thousands of years.
Limiting the ongoing use of these compounds would be one positive step, however Australia’s endorsement of the Stockholm Convention is somewhat lacklustre in terms of implementing bans.
Dr Lloyd-Smith says while it has signed and ratified the Convention, it chose an “opt-in” option for each individual chemical listed.
The nightmare of getting state agreements can mean further exposure
That means the federal government has to gain agreement from every state and territory for a ban on each specific chemical before it can be applied.
This is in contrast to European nations and African nations, who are among the 85 per cent of signatories that chose an “opt out” option, where every time a chemical is listed, the nation automatically ratifies that chemical for banning.
Australia has argued our “opt in” approach is because of the legal set-up between the Commonwealth and the states and territories, Dr Lloyd-Smith says.
However Canada, which has a similar constitutional law set up does implement an automatic ratification of any chemical listed, without needing agreement from its states and territories.
One of the worst toxic issues we face
Urgent action now is needed on the whole class of perfluorinated chemicals, she says.
“This is one of the most disturbing toxic issues we have faced up till now.”
It’s even worse than CFCs, PCBs and dioxins, she says.
“It is depressing. People should be worried.”
She says she finds the lack of clear action by the Australian government on the issue “incomprehensible”.
“I see it as a massive problem that now we have to do something about quickly.”