Engineers devise promising solution to Canberra Airport PFC contamination
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Engineers devise promising solution to Canberra Airport PFC contamination

Engineers have devised a promising solution to the chemical contamination crisis hitting airports across the country, including Canberra.

The federal government fears as many as 22 Australian airports have been polluted by toxic fire fighting foams used on-site between 1980 and 2003.

A promising solution to the chemical crisis hitting the nation's airports is currently in the works.

A promising solution to the chemical crisis hitting the nation's airports is currently in the works.Credit:Canberra Airport

Since 2003, the long-lasting substances are suspected to have slowly leached into surrounding soil and groundwater at major airports such as Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane.

Engineers Australia researcher Grant Scott said a new trial might have discovered a way to slow this leaching process.

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Affected concrete was treated with a chemical solvent called X55, which trapped harmful substances and prevented them from leaking into the environment, he said.

This, in turn, could allow polluted concrete to be dug up, removed from airports, and safely disposed of.

"Managing or mitigating ongoing impact to the environment from the source area of contamination is the most important step in the clean-up of contamination," Mr Scott said.

"Controlling or removing the source will limit health affects, ecosystem damage and costs to the taxpaying public that in some cases will be in the multi-billion dollar range."

The perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) Mr Scott referred to have previously been described by the Environment Department as "persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic".

The solution trialled by Engineers Australia has been tested on concrete cores taken from a number of confidential airport sites across Australia, Mr Scott said.

In certain conditions it could reduce leaching by as much as 90 per cent, he said.

In 2008, the first preliminary site tests identified possible contamination at Canberra Airport's old fire fighting training ground.

Further investigations, which are ongoing, found residues in the soil and groundwater around another site at the airport's fire station.

"The ramifications of the findings are huge," Mr Scott said.

"With the potential for masses of PFC contaminated concrete to be safely managed, or disposed of to enable upgrades to fire training facilities to occur."

"We are completing further on-site pilot studies and longer term testing of the X55 product and continuing to work on enhancing the technology by considering additives for maximising the encapsulation of the PFC contamination and application processes," he added.

"The product will be available for use later this year and we expect to have it available to utilise in various scenarios then."

Environmental scientist Professor Ravi Naidu, from the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment, cautioned that X55 had the potential to itself be harmful to humans and the environment, and these possible side-effects would need to be carefully managed.

"A lot more research needs to be done to make sure it doesn't actually hurt the people who are using it," he said.

"We need to make sure that, by using it on affected areas, it doesn't become a contaminant in its own right."

Steven Trask is a reporter for The Canberra Times

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