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PFOS at Palmerston North Airport: Q&A

Monday September 10 2018

An investigation of soil and surface water at locations at the Palmerston North Airport has revealed the presence of PFOS in all the samples analysed.

Following confirmed PFAS levels at Ohakea in 2017, a formal investigation for the historical use of firefighting foam containing perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) at New Zealand airports was undertaken by Environmental Protection Authority.

As reported in December 2017 by Palmerston North Airport Limited (PNAL) firefighting foam containing PFOS was understood to have been used at the airport for fire training purposes up until the late 1980s. Since this time firefighting foam has been used for the testing of firefighting foam systems on fire vehicles only.

Testing with foam ceased in December 2017 when Task Protection Services Limited (PNAL’s rescue fire service provider) were advised by the Environmental

Protection Authority that their firefighting foam stocks may contain PF0S.

The first stage of soil, sediment and surface water sampling has been completed as part of this investigation.

Test results received in early September indicate waterways surrounding the airport have PFOS levels above drinking water standards.

The city waterways affected are not used for city water supply. Palmerston North City Council (PNCC) confirms all drinking water on their reticulated systems in the city were recently tested and are clear from contaminants.

This means all drinking water in the city supplied by PNCC meets drinking water standards and is safe.

Palmerston North Airport Limited is working with Palmerston North City Council, Horizons Regional Council, and Public Health on this issue.

A working group is established and has adopted a collaborative, transparent and proactive approach to determine the extent of any potential PFOS contamination on site.

Further investigation will include bore drilling, which is scheduled to commence at the identified sites in mid-September.

In the meantime, Task Protection Services Limited is working closely with Palmerston North Airport Limited, Horizons Regional Council and other stakeholders to formulate a disposal plan for remaining stocks of fire-fighting foam containing PFOS which meets Environmental Protection Authority requirements. These stocks will be replaced with fluorine-free firefighting foam.

Frequently Asked Questions:

How can I be exposed to PFAS compounds?

PFOS and PFOA are found in the blood of people and animals all over the world and are present at low levels in a variety of food products and in the environment (air, water, soil, etc.). Therefore, completely preventing exposure to PFOS and PFOA is unlikely, and no effective recommendations can be made for reducing individual exposures in the general population.

A variety of consumer products such as surface-protective coatings on clothing, carpets, and paper packaging have contained different types of PFAS in the past. Recent efforts to remove PFAS in many of these products have reduced the likelihood of PFOS and PFOA exposure. In addition, research has suggested that exposure from consumer products is usually low.

What were the results of the initial tests at Palmerston North Airport?

PFOS and PFOA were detected in the former fire training area and around the rescue fire station.

The presence of PFOS was detected at levels in excess of the interim drinking water guidelines in all the surface water samples, although the concentrations did not exceed the ecotoxic limits for 90 per cent of species in disturbed water courses.

PFOA was also present in many of the samples, but at levels that were below the interim drinking water guidelines.

What testing was carried out?

Soil, sediment and surface water sampling has been completed on Palmerston North Airport Limited land from two areas where it was known that firefighting foam has been used during training exercises, and two offsite locations in close proximity to Airport land.

The first stage of the investigation was undertaken to identify if there were any potential PFOS sources. This information will now inform where investigation bores are to be sited to adequately assess whether groundwater impacts (if present) are migrating off the Airport.

Why was the testing carried out?

Following confirmed PFOS levels at Ohakea, a formal investigation into the historical use of firefighting foam containing perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began in December 2017.

Were nearby waterways tested?

Samples have only been taken from surface water and soil close to or on Airport land at this stage. Further sampling will occur to delimit the spread of PFOS in water.

One water sample was taken upstream of Setters Line within the North East Industrial area, and also one water sample upstream of Dogwood Way in Clearview Park. Both samples indicated the presence of PFOS at concentrations in excess of drinking water guideline values.

The streams feed into the Mangaone and run through the city to the Manawatū River.

Could drinking water be contaminated for people on the Palmerston North supply?

Palmerston North water supply is not contaminated and is safe for consumption.

The Palmerston North City Council undertook testing of all Palmerston North’s reticulated drinking water bores in April 2018. All results were negative for the presence of Poly or Perfluorinated Alkyl Substances (PFAS).

This indicates no connection between the PFAS found at the airport and the city’s drinking water

Could private water bores near the airport have PFOS contamination?

If the landholding is located near the site of historical use of the firefighting on the Northern side of the airport, there is a possibility that the contaminant may be in private bores.

Palmerston North Airport Limited is working alongside Horizons Regional Council, Palmerston North City Council and MidCentral Public Health Services to implement a wider testing programme to help with understanding the extent of potential contamination. Property owners will be advised on the
results of this testing programme and how it may relate to their property.

Anyone with private bores within near vicinity of the airport are asked to register their details on 06
352 8757.

Are there any health effects linked to PFOS and PFOA compounds in humans?

The potential effects of exposure to PFOS and PFOA to human health continue to be studied. These studies involve laboratory animal studies, as well as occupationally exposed workers, residents in communities with higher exposure and studies of the general population in the USA and other countries.

Adverse health effects have been demonstrated in animals exposed to much higher levels of PFOS and PFOA than are known to occur in people. Changes in the liver, thyroid, and pancreatic function, and some changes in hormone levels have been reported. However, the results of these animal studies and
their relevance to humans are not always clear.

Potential adverse health effects in humans cannot be excluded but further research is needed to understand whether the adverse effects seen in animals have any implications for human health.

Researchers have studied people who were occupationally exposed to relatively high levels of PFAS and communities exposed to PFOS, including through drinking water, for 50 years from a US manufacturing plant. Studies have looked for effects on cholesterol levels, male hormones, heart disease, liver
changes, cancer risk and other effects.

These studies have not consistently shown that PFAS exposure is linked to adverse health effects. However, many of these studies reportedly have significant methodological issues that limit the conclusions that can be drawn from their findings.

Are there any health concerns for residents living near Palmerston North Airport?

MidCentral DHB’s Public Health Services have advised there is no acute health risk to residents. This means that exposure to PFOS and/or PFOA will not pose any significant health effects today.

However, for those residents consuming drinking water from private bores a pre-cautionary approach is suggested at least until more information is available because we know these compounds accumulate in the body but we don’t fully understand the effects this could have on human health in the long-term. Therefore, limiting any further exposure is the best course of action for reducing any long-term health risk.

It is therefore recommended an alternative source of drinking water should be used for those people consuming drinking water from private bores to the north of the airport. These people will be visited by staff from Palmerston North Airport Limited to discuss this further.

MPI also advises people to avoid food gathering such as eels and watercress until further testing is
carried out.

  • Mangaone Stream
  • Richardsons Line Drain (including its headwater tributaries that cross Railway Road to the
    east of the Airport)
  • Various streams near the Airport flowing through – Madison Ave and Jefferson Cres area, Clearview Park and McGregor Street.

Is it safe to swim and shower in potentially affected water?

Yes. The risks to health come from the ingestion of PFOS and PFOA compounds. Any water ingested during swimming or showering would not be sufficient to cause health concerns.

How long does it take for PFOS and PFOA to leave my system?

In humans, studies suggest that the half-life (the time it takes for the amount to be reduced by half) of PFOS and PFOA compounds could range from two to nine years. The time it takes for PFOS and PFOA compounds to be excreted from the body is the same for adults and children.

Does the contaminant affect stock and other animals?

Palmerston North Airport Limited are in the process of contacting farm owners located to the north of the airport.

There has been no evidence of risk to animals as a result of this kind of exposure. In other countries where PFAS contamination has come to light, animal welfare issues have not been a concern.

Is further testing being undertaken?

Yes. Palmerston North Airport Limited is working alongside Horizons Regional Council, Palmerston North City Council and MidCentral Public Health Services to implement a wider testing programme to help with understanding the extent of the contamination.

How long will testing take?

Water sample testing is estimated to take up to 10 working days from the laboratory’s receipt of samples.

What are PFAS - Per and Poly-fluoralkyl Substances and PFOS Perfluorooctane Sulfonic Acid?

They’re a group of man-made chemicals that have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries around the globe since the 1940’s.

They’re persistent in the environment and in the human body – meaning they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time.

PFAS can be found in:

  • Food packaged in PFAS-containing materials, processed with equipment that used PFAS, or grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water.
  • Commercial household products, including stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products (e.g Teflon), polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, and fire-fighting foams (a major source of groundwater contamination at airports and military bases where firefighting training occurs).
  • Workplace, including production facilities or industries (e.g., chrome plating, electronics manufacturing or oil recovery) that use PFAS.
  • Drinking water, typically localized and associated with a specific facility (e.g., manufacturer, landfill, wastewater treatment plant, firefighter training facility).
  • Living organisms, including fish, animals and humans, where PFAS have the ability to build up and persist over time.

Where can I go to for more information?