'Sprayed everywhere': Firefighters' toxic contamination concerns
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'Sprayed everywhere': Firefighters' toxic contamination concerns

A retired fire fighter says he was repeatedly exposed to toxic chemicals at the Fyshwick fire station, as the government admits the site hasn’t been tested despite known risks of contamination.

Former station officer Graeme Gallagher, who worked as a fire fighter for more than 30 years, said huge amounts of potentially-harmful PFAS foam was sprayed at the Fyshwick fire station on Dalby Street.

Retired station officer Graeme Gallagher, who says PFAS was "sprayed everywhere" at the back of the Fyshwick fire station.

Retired station officer Graeme Gallagher, who says PFAS was "sprayed everywhere" at the back of the Fyshwick fire station. Credit:Karleen Minney.

“We used it in the rear yard, it would have been sprayed everywhere,” he said.

“The grassy area out the back there – I’m sure at times I can remember it being white.

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“There were a couple of cars up in the rear corner that we used to set fire to, and they would have been foamed and that would run straight down into the stormwater, which pretty much runs straight into the lake.”

Potentially-harmful polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) were present in aqueous film forming foams used by Australian fire fighters until they were phased out in 2005.

Some PFAS chemicals “have been globally identified as chemicals of high concern to human health and the environment”, according to guidance published on Access Canberra’s website.

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An ACT government spokesman said the Fyshwick site had been identified as a high priority for contamination testing based on the known use of PFAS foam in training drills.

Risk assessments of potentially-contaminated sites were completed as far back as November 2016, according to ACT government briefings obtained by Fairfax.

However, the majority of these sites were yet to be tested, an ACT government spokesman said.

“The Fyshwick Fire and Rescue Station has not been tested to date, but will be tested in the future,” the spokesman said.

Union boss Greg McConville and retired fire fighter Graeme Gallagher, who are calling for blood screening for past and present fire fighters.

Union boss Greg McConville and retired fire fighter Graeme Gallagher, who are calling for blood screening for past and present fire fighters. Credit:Karleen Minney.

Testing had been delayed until the federal government had finalised its PFAS National Environmental Management Plan, the spokesman said.

Government briefings show toxic fire fighting foams could have left a legacy of contamination at as many as nine fire stations across the ACT, as well as defence department and police facilities.

An ACT government briefing from December 2017 reveals PFAS contamination has also been confirmed at the former Belconnen fire station on Lathlain Street.

Mr Gallagher said there needed to be a program where past and present fire fighters could have their blood tested for the presence of toxic chemicals.

“It is a bit of a worry that you’ve picked up the contamination,” he said.

“We’d pour a 20 litre drum of [PFAS foam] into a measuring container and tip it into [an extinguisher], fill it with water and charge it with air. We used them again and again and it just slops everywhere.

“We had no idea what it contained.”

It is understood both the United Firefighters Union and Unions ACT have recently urged WorkSafe ACT to tackle PFAS contamination as a health and safety issue.

United Firefighters Union ACT secretary Greg McConville said the ACT government needed to urgently test exposed fire fighters for cancers and other diseases.

Environmental contamination and the contamination of fire fighting equipment also needed to be addressed, Mr McConville said.

PFAS contamination scandals have notably rocked communities in the Northern Territory, Queensland and regional New South Wales.

An ACT government spokesman said a detailed sampling program to characterise PFAS sources and movements would begin in November.

“The sampling plan will involve existing water monitoring sites as well as ACT landfill, fuel storage and sewage treatment plant sites as these are potential sources of PFAS from household, commercial and industrial activities.”

Steven Trask is a reporter for The Canberra Times

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