Queensland's ban on PFAS firefighting foam questioned by professor

Queensland's looming ban on firefighting foams containing toxic PFAS chemicals could falter because a lack of suitable, non-toxic alternatives, a leading chemistry academic warns.

The state government first announced in July 2016 it would phase out the use of the toxic foams containing PFOS and PFOA but gave companies until July 2019 to stop using them and secure any existing stocks they had from leaking into the environment.

But two years into the three-year phase-out, Professor Steven Bottle of Queensland University of Technology questioned whether industry would be able to successfully transition away from the toxic foams.

"I am not sure that there is as good a product as PFAS, for aviation fuel fires especially," Professor Bottle said.

"PFAS are very effective in coating fires and spilt fuel.

"They help to form a blanket that cuts off the fire from the oxygen it needs, and they hold a layer of water in place to take away heat and decrease flammable vapours.

"It is a challenge to come up with an agent as effective as PFAS in this context.

"The government could simply ban PFAS but they can't go back to just spraying water on a fire.

"They have to use some form of foaming agent in situations where fires need to be suppressed quickly to save lives."

He added that any alternative used must be "as benign as possible", and that environmental exposure would need to be limited.

PFAS - perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances - have been used since the 1950s in a range of common household products, such as non-stick cookware and fabric, as well as industrial products.

Australia is one of only a handful of countries not to have banned PFOS and the government is defending legal actions from affected communities.

The chemicals are no longer directly used in consumer goods but are found in the environment at low levels because of their historical use. It is also common for people to have low levels in their blood because of everyday exposure.

While PFAS is regarded as a highly effective fire suppressant because it does not break down and disperse, it becomes an environmental hazard when it accumulates in the water table.

Last year, the state's environmental regulator issued a voluntary survey to 992 organisations to establish where stocks of PFAS might be held.

Despite more than half (524) of the organisations failing to respond to the survey, the Department of Environment and Science said it viewed the responses as "positive", and that it demonstrated "a statewide co-operative approach" in relation to PFAS.

A DES spokesperson confirmed an education program was being rolled out to "add to information already received from the survey regarding the locations where PFAS firefighting foam is used, as well as helping to ensure that industry is aware of its obligations to comply with the July 2019 deadline".

Queensland Greens MP Michael Berkman said more work should have been done during the PFAS phase-out.

"There may have been practical difficulties with an immediate ban, and phasing out these chemicals was a sensible move by the state government," he said.

"However, much more should have been done to support industries to find suitable non-toxic alternatives well before this impending deadline.

"It's ultimately the Turnbull government that needs to step up to protect people from these dangerous chemicals.

"The Defence Department is the single biggest user of PFAS, and has known the serious health risks of these chemicals for years and yet the federal government continues to drag its feet."

In a statement, a spokesperson for Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch said: "Since July 2016, the government has also been calling on the federal government to implement a national ban on these chemicals.

"It is pleasing to see other governments follow Queensland's lead; an intergovernmental agreement on a national framework for responding to PFAS contamination came into effect in February this year.

"The DES is currently implementing Queensland's policy and is working with companies to help transition to new, non-toxic foams."

Brisbane Times, Alison Brown, 27th June 2018

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