Former firey demands national ban on toxic PFAS foam

A retired ACT firefighter is calling for toxic foam PFAS to be banned nationally, as hundreds of former firies battle cancer after exposure to the toxic firefighting foam on the job.

All states and territories have introduced presumptive legislation for career and volunteer firefighters diagnosed with a variety of cancers to ensure the link between chemical exposure and their illness is made so workers’ compensation claims and workplace liability is accepted. The legislation means it’s assumed that the cancer diagnosed was work related and they do not need to prove chemical exposure was a contributing factor.

In the ACT, the use of foams containing PFAS began being phased out in 2005. This year, NSW banned the use of PFAS-containing firefighting foam except in fighting catastrophic fires or where there are special exemptions. Queensland and South Australia introduced a similar ban in 2017. Tasmanian fire services still have not banned the use of PFAS in firefighting foam.

Former ACT Fire & Rescue firefighter Mike McGee said if PFAS foam could not be used safely in workplaces or industries across Australia it should not be used at all. After being diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2005 and again in 2018 following exposure to PFAS (or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) and other chemicals on the job over decades, Mr McGee is relieved to say he has beat cancer twice.

“There is no excuse for PFAS being used now. Decades ago we didn’t know how dangerous it was at all. We used to treat it as washing up liquid and people would even wash their cars with it. We’d be training out the back of the Belconnen Training Centre and we were up to our knees in the foam. It was part of an armory of things to use. We didn’t treat it with any reverence or caution. Back in the 70s, you wore your basic duds and you hoped they never caught alight. It’s different now and the safety gear has improved greatly. Knowing what we now know, the level of exposure can be managed, prevented and should be stopped altogether,” Mr McGee said.

“I would hope that with more information available now about what these chemicals are capable of, that the use of these chemicals across all industries will continue to be reduced and phased out altogether. It would save lives and stop future generations from suffering like we have. It’s hard to believe the foam is still in use, given the presumptive legislation recognising chemical exposure put in place for firefighters across the country.”

Slater and Gordon Comcare Associate Gabriella Giunta, who represented Mr McGee in his Comcare workers’ compensation legal claim, said the presumptive legislation was one less hurdle for volunteer and career firefights, on the way to securing adequate compensation for their illness.

“Current and former firefighters with cancer no longer have to face rejected claims from insurers, an expensive and potentially traumatising court process. Where people have been exposed to PFAS or other chemicals through paid work or volunteering, they now have presumptive rights through a Comcare claim in the ACT or through workers’ compensation schemes in other states and territories. They should be compensated for their economic loss, medical costs and permanent injury or illness which has caused them pain and suffering. The families of workers who have died from cancer after exposure of this nature are entitled to a dependency claim,” Ms Giunta said.

“Work is also underway across the majority of Australian states and territories to ensure that the use of PFAS is limited and banned where possible. No worker should be exposed to harmful chemicals like this at work. We would like to see the use of PFAS banned nationally as soon as possible, preferably within 12 months.”

Mr McGee said many current and former firefighters still did not know their workers’ compensation claims would now be accepted more readily thanks to presumptive legislation.

“The cancers I had were among the types the service and ACT state government agreed to take responsibility for set out in the presumptive legislation. There was no doubt at all that my cancer was linked to the PFAS and chemical exposure while fighting fires and at the training centre,” he said.

“The compensation I received will go towards renovating the house and sorting my wife and I out for the future. There are long term impacts that come with the job. But we have much stronger legal rights now. One guy I knew died a crappy death, and his son and wife wanted to look into a claim, but it all got a bit too hard, so they ended up giving up. Don’t be put off by thinking it’s too difficult to prove your condition was due to chemical exposure.”

United Firefighters Union Victoria Vice President Mick Tisbury said Fire Rescue Victoria hadn’t used PFAS-containing foam since 2010.

“We have called on the Federal Government to the ban use of PFAS containing foam in Australia. There are effective and safe alternatives that are now utilised by almost every fire service in the country,” Mr Tisbury said.

“PFAS is a known endocrine disruptor and affects the immune system which makes people exposed to it more vulnerable to becoming ill from other known carcinogens. There is no level of safe exposure.”

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