New restrictions on firefighting foams
16 December 2020
The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has imposed tighter restrictions on toxic and environmentally damaging firefighting foam products, and set a deadline for when their use in New Zealand will end.
Some types of firefighting foams contain PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) which can cause serious land and water contamination. Two banned PFAS substances, PFOS (perfluorooctane sulphonic acid) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), were discovered at the Ohakea and Woodbourne airbases in late 2017. In response, the EPA investigated the presence of non-compliant firefighting foams at commercial airports and other locations in New Zealand.
PFOA and its related compounds are referred to as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that do not readily break down through chemical or biological processes. They persist for a long time, both in the environment and the human body, and bio-accumulate up the food chain – meaning they gradually build up in the bodies of living things.
PFOA and its related compounds are now classified as POPs under the Stockholm Convention, an international agreement to limit the production and use of such chemicals. This update has been reflected in New Zealand’s Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, and in a new decision on the Fire Fighting Chemicals Group Standard.
The decision means that uncontained use of firefighting foams containing PFOA-related compounds, for example at the scene of a plane or truck crash, must be phased out by the end of 2022. Contained use, for example at an enclosed fuel tank fire where the substance can be restricted from contaminating the environment, must be phased out by 3 December 2025.
“From that date, any usage of PFAS-containing firefighting foam - not including those containing PFOA-related compounds - would need permission from the EPA on a case by case basis. There are a number of alternatives to PFAS-containing foams which remain available for use in New Zealand,” says EPA spokesperson Siobhan Quayle.
The changes also set requirements for removal and disposal of any waste products from firefighting systems with PFAS-containing foams.
“The EPA will be working with foam users and the fire protection industry to develop practical guidance material to facilitate the implementation of the new requirements,” says Siobhan Quayle.
The amendments to the Group Standard clarify the requirements for firefighting foams in New Zealand, further reducing the possible adverse effects of these substances on people and the environment.