THE Department of Defence says the firefighting foam contamination scandal it’s dealing with at Williamtown RAAF Base is not a problem confined to Defence.
Retired NSW fireman Geoffrey Zipper, 66, of Corlette, agrees.
As one of three former firemen he’s aware of, who have battled bladder cancer after years of direct contact with fire fighting foam containing perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), Mr Zipper says it’s time the focus included NSW Fire and Rescue.
“Aqueous fire fighting foam was a terrific new thing when it was introduced because it put a film over any liquid,” he said.
“We had foam-making equipment. We trained with it a lot. We ended up with it all over ourselves. I wasn’t aware until this thing started in Williamtown that there was a problem.”
Mr Zipper became a fireman in 1970. He moved to the Hunter in 1974 and worked in the region for 32 years until he was medically retired in 2006, aged 60, after a bladder cancer diagnosis.
“I started getting blood in my urine. I was treated at Royal Newcastle Hospital and had chemotherapy for six weeks. It was horrendous when they first said 'You've got cancer'. It was a slow type cancer and it kept coming back,” he said.
A Hunter resident and former fireman who worked with Mr Zipper was also treated for bladder cancer. The Newcastle Herald has spoken with a third retired fireman living in the Hunter, who trained and worked with foam and was diagnosed with bladder cancer in his late 30s.
“It was ridiculous how much of that stuff we used,” the retired fireman said.
“We would get the drum out, splash the stuff around and hose it off.”
Mr Zipper and the other retired fireman are not saying PFOS contamination caused their bladder cancer.
“It’s an emerging contaminant,” Mr Zipper said.
“They can’t say anything for sure. But you only have to look at asbestos to know that a product that’s considered safe at one time can later be identified as a major health risk. Who’s to say in 10 years’ time this stuff isn’t going to be a category 1 dangerous good?”
Both men believe NSW Fire and Rescue has the capacity to audit employee records to determine cancer levels and whether particular cancers are more common in former firefighters.
NSW Fire and Rescue Deputy Commissioner Jim Smith said aqueous fire fighting foams were used for a number of years and withdrawn in 2007. In a statement on Monday he said the use of the foams was “very rare” because of the expense.
“Cheaper training foams that contain no PFOS or (perfluorooctanoic acid) PFOA were used in large-scale training rather than aqueous fire fighting foam,” Mr Smith said.
“If expert advice is received indicating that health monitoring is appropriate, FRNSW will seek advice on valid techniques for detecting health effects and or biological exposure levels, and, if necessary, offer testing.”