NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton has called on the Turnbull government to “urgently agree to a ban” on toxic firefighting chemicals, as she deflected criticism over her claim that the state can’t ban the toxins.
The surprise call comes amid alarm over revelations that nearly two tonnes of toxic firefighting foam is estimated to still be used across Australia every year, the majority of it escaping uncontrolled into the environment.
The chemical is also still used in some older medical imaging devices and X-ray equipment. Australia remains one of the only countries in the world not to have banned the chemical perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). At least 171 countries have banned the chemical.
PFOS, a key ingredient in firefighting foam, is arguably the most toxic in a broader family of chemicals known as PFAS. The Herald revealed this month that 90 sites in Australia, including 25 in NSW and 10 in Sydney are under investigation for PFAS contamination. On Thursday, the NSW opposition pledged to ban PFAS and accused Ms Upton of misleading parliament by claiming the state was unable to do so.
It also emerged that the NSW Environment Protection Authority has called on the federal government - which has been “actively” considering its position for months - to ban the chemical.
“If elected in 2019, NSW will join South Australia and Queensland in banning these chemicals," shadow Environment Minister Penny Sharpe told the Herald. “It is clear the Minister can act to ban PFAS chemicals in NSW. It is also clear that she has misled the parliament about the mechanisms to do so.”
Asked whether she would correct her statement to Parliament, Minister Upton sheeted home responsibility to her federal counterparts.
“The best way to deal with PFAS is for the Federal Government to ban its importation and use," she said.
“I have written to the Federal Minister calling on the Federal Government to urgently agree to a ban and to work together with all states and territories on this issue.
“There is no legislative PFAS ban in Queensland nor in South Australia. They are phasing out the use of PFAS, as we are in NSW.”
She accused Labor of “scaremongering” on the issue.
Dr Andrew Jeremijenko, a specialist in environmental medicine, challenged Ms Upton's position, noting that South Australia banned firefighting foams containing PFAS by amending a policy under its Environment Protection Authority act.
“People are basically breaking the EPA act if they start using it,” he said.
Manufacturer 3M abandoned production of PFOS at the turn of the century and there is growing concern over studies linking the chemical to immune suppression, interference with hormones and some forms of cancer. The Department of Defence, most commercial airports and state and territory fire brigades phased out PFOS-based foams several years ago.
But a regulation impact statement by the federal Department of Environment warned that legacy stocks of the foam are still in use by private industry, at places like docks, oil refineries and dangerous goods storage facilities. This could “pose risks to human health”, it warned, and was “inconsistent with protection of the environment”.
“If Australia does not act and the current trend continues, the burden of PFOS exposure on Australian environments and communities will increase,” the report said.
“Currently the majority of PFOS consumed in Australia is released into the environment … [this] poses a risk of creating contaminated sites where the level of PFOS is elevated above guideline values. The potential for complex and unpredictable impacts from PFOS exposure, including multigenerational effects, is a concern.”
No action would see an estimated 25 tonnes of PFOS released into the environment over the next two decades.
Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, from the National Toxics Network, slammed the situation as a “fiasco”.
“People have got to understand this is the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
“There’s 4700 PFAS chemicals estimated by the OECD and we’re taking 10 years to make a critical decision about one. What on earth are we going to be doing about the rest?”
The Department of Environment report estimated that when the toxic foams were used, three quarters of the run-off escaped into the water table, 14 per cent ended up in soil and the remainder in landfill.
Current uses of PFOS also include as a mist suppressant in chromium plating.
A federal ban would see emissions plunge 96 per cent within a year, dropping from 3400 to 103 kilograms annually. Photo-imaging and certain medical devices would be exempt under the ban, which would cost an estimated $39 million.
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