SOIL samples from HMAS Cerberus are being sent for chemical testing over fears that sailors could suffer long term ill-effects after having been exposed to a now-banned firefighting foam.
The tests come after concerns were raised nationally about the possible dangers posed by aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), which was used for decades at the Crib Point training base to practise extinguishing liquid fuel fires.
The base’s commander, Captain Stephen Bowater, last week confirmed that the foams were used from the 1970s in fire-fighting drills on ships and inside the base, but phased out 2003-08 and replaced with safer materials.
He said the foam residue was routinely drained into sealed holding tanks, minimising any threat to the base’s water supply.
“It’s a closed system. Whether it’s gone beyond that we don’t know at this stage,” Capt. Bowater said.
He confirmed contaminants had been found in the firefighting trainer – similar to the superstructure of a ship – but said “we are about to test samples of the ground around the tanks to determine if there is any contamination.
“We don’t know if personnel have been contaminated as there is no consistent data showing the [chemical foams’] effect on human health.
“We are being precautionary and we have stopped training using them.”
Capt. Bowater said the navy was “unsure if there is an issue” until testing confirmed any potential dangers.
“There are no acceptable international standards and we can’t measure hypotheticals.”
He said the base was supplied with drinking water from peninsula reservoirs and not bore water, which could be more susceptible to contamination.
“We are members of this community with 120 families living at the base, and the service personnel are solid citizens, so we have a vested interest in the soil here,” Capt. Bowater said.
A Department of Defence spokesman said it was “working closely with the departments of Health, Environment, Infrastructure and Regional Development, and Air Services Australia, to attain a consistent technical and strategic management approach” to the possible contamination.
“There is no consistent scientific data showing that [foam ingredients] PFOS and PFOA affect human health,” he said. “Most people living in developed nations have levels of PFOS and PFOA in their systems as these chemicals have also been used in common household and industrial applications.
“Defence continues to be proactive in initiating a program of investigations to identify the extent and levels of PFOS and PFOA on, and in the vicinity of, some Defence bases.
“Defence is being open and transparent in making the verified sampling results available to state/territory and local authorities, as well as relevant property owners.”