Firefighting foam cancer claim disputed

Neda Vanovac

There is no evidence poisonous chemicals used to put out fires on the Darwin Air Force Base are linked to human illnesses, says Assistant Defence Minister Michael McCormac, despite contradictory advice from the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Defence is testing waterways in Darwin to determine whether perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOA) chemicals until recently contained in firefighting foams have had an impact on the surrounding waterways and environment, following similar investigations at bases in Williamtown in NSW and Oakey in Queensland.

Testing was expected to take "some months" and the results would be published, said Mr McCormack.

"I can assure people there is no link, no link whatsoever between PFOS and PFOA and adverse human health effects," he told reporters in Darwin on Thursday.

"We want to allay community concerns, obviously, and sometimes I think these concerns are unfounded ... there is no link between this emerging contaminant and human health."

His comments contradict advice from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which has classified PFOA as possibly causing cancer.

The chemicals have industrial uses and can be found in things like weatherproof clothing and non-stick frying pans as well as the firefighting foams.

They do not break down and can travel long distances on air and water currents, and have been found to be toxic to some animals.

Last year Victoria's Country Fire Authority base in Fiskville was shut down following contamination of the water supply, with dozens of firefighters who worked or trained there suffering from cancers linked to PFOS and PFOA.

"That's why every precaution is being taken," Mr McCormack said, while maintaining there was no proven health link.

"We're doing everything as a responsible government would to make sure the testing is carried out, that there's full community consultation, and we will continue to do that."