Children played in PFAS foam ‘snow’ at Newcastle fire brigade Christmas parties

COVERED: Trainee firemen emerge from firefighting foam during an exercise at a training ground in Canberra in 2008. Picture: Richard Briggs
COVERED: Trainee firemen emerge from firefighting foam during an exercise at a training ground in Canberra in 2008. Picture: Richard Briggs

Retired Newcastle fireman Geoff Zipper says children used to play in firefighting foam at staff Christmas parties like it was snow.

“Many times. A lot of the retained staff used to splash it around at Christmas time,” he said. “It looked like snow, so they used it. Of course it was. Children ran through it; we all ran through it.”

Mr Zipper, 69, retired in 2006 with bladder cancer after 36 years working for Fire and Rescue NSW.

He spent part of his career working at Hamilton Fire Station, where PFAS contamination from firefighting foam has been found in the soil and groundwater.

The Newcastle Herald reported this month that tests on the 900-square metre block in Belford Street, which is the subject of a residential development application, had shown per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) levels up to 100 times greater than health guidelines for recreational water.

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Mr Zipper said some of his colleagues were now suffering cancers similar to his.

“A good friend of mine who worked in hazmat, he’s just had his whole bladder and prostate removed in the past three months,” he said.

“The mechanic, he’s had prostate cancer and kidney cancer. Another friend of mine had prostate, a kidney removed and bladder removed. Many, many firemen have suffered.”

FRNSW is conducting PFAS investigations at stations and training sites in Alexandria, Armidale, Albion Park, Deniliquin, Greenacre, Liverpool and Londonderry but none in the Hunter.

CONCERNS: Retired fireman Geoff Zipper was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2006. Picture: Stephen Wark

CONCERNS: Retired fireman Geoff Zipper was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2006. Picture: Stephen Wark

FRNSW fact sheets on these investigations describe PFAS chemicals as “emerging contaminants, which means that their ecological and/or human health effects are unclear”.

The federal Department of Health maintains there is “no consistent evidence” that the chemicals can cause “important” health effects such as cancer. 

An independent report to the federal government last year said there was “no current evidence that supports a large impact on a person’s health as a result of high levels of PFAS exposure”.

“However, the panel noted that even though the evidence for PFAS exposure and links to health effects is very weak and inconsistent, important health effects for individuals exposed to PFAS cannot be ruled out based on the current evidence,” it said.

It said some scientific studies had shown a “possible link” with an increased risk of testicular and kidney cancer.

PFAS was used at fire stations and 18 defence bases across the country, including Williamtown, until it was phased out from 10 years ago, but it has left widespread soil and water contamination.

CONTAMINATED: Hamilton Fire Station, where tests have shown PFAS levels well above health guidelines.

CONTAMINATED: Hamilton Fire Station, where tests have shown PFAS levels well above health guidelines.

“I read where Hamilton’s a hundred times over the limit. The fire brigade don’t seem to want to listen to me or anyone else who is suffering from cancer,” Mr Zipper said.

“They don’t think this stuff is a toxic substance, which I do.

“I have great concerns for anyone who has worked there and other stations I was attached to.

“Newcastle fire station, Waratah, every other station in Newcastle and every station in NSW is potentially a toxic place for this stuff.”

Mr Zipper, who is not taking legal action against FRNSW, said his colleagues used the foam in ways which increased their exposure.  

“We used to wash the truck in it when we came back from a job. I’m sure we washed our dishes in it and everything else.

“We used to be made to walk through it with no protective clothing.

“We weren’t given any warnings about the stuff … but now they don’t want to admit any liability; the government doesn’t want to recognise that this stuff is toxic”.

Asked whether it planned to investigate sites in Newcastle, FRNSW said: “FRNSW is currently in the process of analysing survey responses that have been received from our stations, including sites within the Newcastle area.

“These responses will feed into FRNSW’s risk-based portfolio assessment.

“Any future investigations that may result from this process will be agreed between FRNSW in consultation with the NSW EPA. This process will be ongoing.”

FRNSW said its criteria for whether to investigate sites was “under development” but would be based on regulatory guidelines and sent to the NSW Environment Protection Authority for approval next month.

”FRNSW will continue to act on the advice of NSW Health and the Commonwealth Department of Health in relation to potential health impacts of PFAS.

“Presently, the advice of these agencies is that there is no consistent evidence for any link between PFAS exposure and human disease.”