A retired ACT firefighter and unions are ramping up their campaign for the federal government to introduce legislation to formally ban the use of toxic PFAS foam as hundreds of firefighters battle cancer after exposure.
They say little action has been taken despite the national regulatory body for industrial chemicals sounding the warnings nearly 20 years ago to phase out PFAS (or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances).
Former ACT Fire and Rescue firefighter Mike McGee said if PFAS, which is also used at defence bases and airports, could not be used safely in workplaces or industries across Australia then it should not be used at all.
After being diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma in 2005 and again in 2018 following exposure to PFAS and other chemicals on the job over decades, Mr McGee, who now lives in Tweed Heads, said he was relieved to have beaten cancer twice.
"Decades ago we didn't know how dangerous it was at all. We used to treat it as washing up liquid and people would even wash their cars with it," he said.
"Knowing what we now know, the level of exposure can be managed, prevented and should be stopped altogether."
Mr McGee, who served for 24 years from 1996, said the information available now meant "it would save lives and stop future generations from suffering like we have".
All states and territories have introduced presumptive legislation for career and volunteer firefighters diagnosed with various cancers to ensure the link between chemical exposure and their illness is made so workers' compensation claims and workplace liability is accepted.
The legislation means it is assumed that the cancer diagnosed was work related and they do not need to prove chemical exposure was a contributing factor.
Slater and Gordon Comcare associate Gabriella Giunta, who represented Mr McGee in his workers' compensation legal claim, said the presumptive legislation was one less hurdle for volunteer and career firefighters, on the way to securing adequate compensation for their illness.
The ACT began to phase out PFAS in 2005. This year, NSW banned it in firefighting foam except in fighting catastrophic fires or where there are special exemptions.
Queensland and South Australia introduced a similar ban in 2017 while Tasmanian fire services still have not banned it.
Knowing what we now know, the level of exposure can be managed, prevented and should be stopped altogether.Mike McGee
Greg McConville, secretary of the ACT branch of the United Firefighters Union, said they wanted to see a national ban within the next 12 months.
"The federal government has been on notice about this for 21 years and have let the states and territories carry the regulatory load," Mr McConville said.
"In 2018, we advocated a range of measures.
"Recent site testing results with the workers' compensation determination show that firefighters at the tested fire stations continue to be exposed to chemicals with a causal link to cancer."
Mr McConville said the ACT Government needed a comprehensive plan on managing PFAS deposits and a national approach to the health screening of firefighters exposed to PFAS.
"While PFAS firefighting foams are no longer used by Fire and Rescue, there is no constraint on their use in, for example, fire extinguishers at private businesses or homes or reserves of foam held at major hazard facilities," he said.
In response, a spokesperson for Trevor Evans, the Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management, said the government in March passed legislation to deliver stronger and more consistent management of environmental risks from industrial chemicals, including PFAS chemicals.
The spokesperson said the Industrial Chemical Environment Management (Register) Bill 2020 includes a new register to create a single, nationally consistent source of information about how chemicals should be managed in Australia.
"Chemicals will be categorised and scheduled on the register based on their level of concern to the environment," they said.
"Long-chain PFAS chemicals and other chemicals listed on the Stockholm Convention will be among the first chemicals scheduled on the new Register.
"Chemicals assessed as high concern will be either severely restricted or banned."
In the interim, Australian governments agreed in May 2020 on a national position statement that sets out a shared objective of phasing out or reducing use of PFAS.
Questions were also addressed to ACT Environment Minister Rebecca Vassarotti and Police and Emergency Services Minister Mick Gentleman.
A government spokesperson said if there were a need to enact a more formal ban, the ACT government will consider this based on expert advice and evidence.
"The ACT government is committed to promoting and supporting firefighter health and wellbeing initiatives, which have been agreed in the ACT Fire and Rescue Enterprise Agreement 2020-24," they said.
The spokesperson said at present, there was no conclusive evidence that PFAS causes any specific illness.
"The ACT Chief Health Officer advises that even when PFAS levels in an environment are elevated, they do not pose a potential risk to human health unless they are absorbed by consuming contaminated water or food.
"A person would have to repeatedly eat large amounts of contaminated soil, water or food to produce elevated levels of PFAS within their system. The Government will continue to monitor evidence and seek expert health guidance."
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