BOB Ingle remembers spraying ‘‘copious amounts’’ of fire-fighting foam around Williamtown RAAF Base to control the dust 30 years ago.
Several times every day fire trucks would roar out across the tarmac and discharge their toxic cargo as far as they could.
Thousands of litres of foam drenched the grass. And anything else in the vicinity.
There were times during training when firefighters would be coated in it.
The 74-year-old former RAAF firie, diagnosed with lung cancer three years ago, speaks with anger about the wave of disease that has afflicted his colleagues.
Mr Ingle said the men don’t fully understand what confronts them and authorities were ‘‘certainly not ’fessing up’’.
But each year there are echoes of the hundreds of chemicals they burnt and used, as another firefighter is diagnosed with cancer or a neurological disease.
‘Our injuries and diseases need to be recognised ... by the time they get around to it it’ll be too late for me, but it could help some of the others’.- Bob Ingle
‘‘There were never any warnings about the fact that any of the chemicals could be harmful for your health,’’ Mr Ingle said.
‘‘The firefighting foam was sprayed everywhere and it was just left where it would fall.
‘‘It was always dusty and if a helicopter was going to land we would run the product underneath to bind the dirt.
‘‘We used to put it everywhere.’’
Mr Ingle, of Karuah - who served as a RAAF firefighter for 16 years to 1985, including time at Williamtown - said authorities had "no idea" of the scale of chemicals poured on the ground at Williamtown RAAF Base.
He feared the leaking of chemicals from the fire retardant foam that has spread to surrounding suburbs via ground and surface water might never be contained.
‘‘It obviously needs to all be cleaned up, but I don’t know how they’re going to manage that,’’ he said.
‘‘We’re still learning about the foam and the health risks, but in some respects it’s not as severe as some of the other chemicals.
‘‘In the fire service we burnt a lot of product which was not real smart to burn.’’
Retired RAAF firefighters with skyrocketing cancer rates, are calling on the Federal Government to take action.
Townsville-based Pat Mildren, who was a chief fire instructor at Point Cook air base and diagnosed with bowel and bladder cancer, said dozens of his former colleagues had been diagnosed with cancer and other health problems.
‘‘In the past three years about 30 have died and nothing seems to ever happen,’’ he said.
‘‘We raise it and they keep asking us for proof that the illnesses are linked to the job.
‘‘We haven’t got the proof, in most cases we burnt it.’’
Chemicals and waste were burnt as cheap fuel for training exercises and firies would be ‘‘covered from head to toe’’ in the fire retardant foam ‘‘all the time’’.
In the early days, there was no protective gear and even when breathing apparatus was introduced in the 1970s, Mr Mildren said there was not enough to go around and firies were not allowed to use it in training.
Decades on, Mr Ingle said it was time for authorities to ‘‘do the right thing’’.
‘‘I smoked, but a lot of our guys weren’t smokers, they were just inhaling these products all the time,’’ he said.
‘‘Our injuries and diseases need to be recognised and DVA (Department of Veterans Affairs) needs to ensure Gold Card health cover treatment.
‘‘By the time they get around to it, it’ll be too late for me, but it could help some of the others.’’
The Department of Defence did not respond to the Newcastle Herald’s request for comment.
Paul de Groot was a contractor at the air base for several years during the upgrade works.
‘‘Pretty much everyday we would see the guys using the foam,’’ he said.
‘‘After the fighter jets landed or took off they would roar out in their trucks and empty the stuff everywhere.
‘‘When I asked what was going on they said it was used as a dust suppressant."