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Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)

Fire and Emergency New Zealand

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)

What are PFAS?

PFAS means ‘per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances’ and is a collective term for more than 3,000 compounds containing fluorine that are used in a wide variety of consumer products, including food packaging, cookware, clothing, carpets, furniture, and cleaning products. They have also been used in firefighting foams that are used to fight liquid fuel fires (Class B foams).

Ninety-five percent of Fire and Emergency’s foam use is Class A foam, which we use for vegetation fires and combustible materials such as timber. Class A foams are primarily wetting agents and do not contain PFAS. However, they need to be kept out of waterways. We only use a very limited quantity of Class B foam for emergency response.

PFAS compounds last for a long time before breaking down. Because of this they are found in the environment worldwide, including in humans and animals. People are exposed to small amounts of some PFAS in everyday life, and most people have small amounts of these substances in their systems.

PFAS are an emerging contaminant and the science is continually evolving, so there is no clear picture yet of what the health effects of PFAS are on humans.

All-of-Government approach

The Ministry for the Environment (MfE) co-ordinates an all-of-Government response to the issue of potential environmental contamination from PFAS.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand is involved in the PFAS programme because we are a Crown entity and a landowner, and we use firefighting foams. We are a member of the PFAS working and governance groups, working closely with MFE and other government agencies. As a member of these groups, we are looking at potential PFAS contamination, both as a national issue and at our own sites.

Assessing our sites around New Zealand

We have 667 sites across the country and, as our past use of Class B foams may have resulted in some PFAS contamination, we are assessing our sites.

We completed the first stage of our work in 2018, which consisted of an initial screening of all 667 sites. We then used a prioritisation tool to assess and rank 115 of these sites for the next step of the investigations. During this exercise, no sites were identified that might present a high risk and warrant immediate attention.

The second stage involves the selection of sites for Preliminary Site Investigations. According to the prioritisation tool there were eight sites that warranted further investigation. These investigations focus on whether historical contamination of the environment has occurred or not.

Our focus is to look at whether there is a route or pathway for PFAS to get from a source of contamination to a person, for example through groundwater, surface water or soil.

The fire station sites chosen for a Preliminary Site Investigation are: Woolston Fire Station and Training Centre, Feilding, Napier, Hastings, Silverdale, Masterton, Dunedin and Washdyke in Timaru. This does not necessarily mean that these sites are contaminated.

We expect to complete the Preliminary Site Investigations of all eight sites by December 2019.

Firefighter health

The health, safety and wellbeing of firefighters is of paramount importance to us.

The Ministry of Health’s advice is that the main route of PFAS exposure is through ingestion (drinking or eating contaminated water or food). The Ministry of Health also advises that direct exposure to PFAS through skin contact carries a low risk to human health.

Firefighters wear Personal Protective Equipment, which limits firefighting foams from coming into contact with the skin, minimising exposure and, if there is contact, PFAS are poorly absorbed through the skin, minimising the amount that can be absorbed before it is washed off.

We have been in discussion with our counterparts in Australia to understand the research that they are doing on firefighter health impacts of foams containing PFAS.

The Ministry for the Environment website has more information on PFAS including health information.

https://www.mfe.govt.nz/land/pfas-and-poly-fluoroalkyl-substances

Questions?

If you have questions or concerns about our investigations, please contact us on PFAS@fireandemergency.nz . We will update this page as new results come in.