Investigation puts focus on two streams

Eels in two South Taranaki streams have been found to have elevated levels of chemicals associated with firefighting foam – the only finding of note in a wide-ranging regional investigation into any such contamination.

The potential long-term effects of these chemicals on human health are unclear and the subject of ongoing research. The Taranaki Regional Council has referred its findings to the Ministry for Primary Industries for food safety advice. The two streams, the Oaonui and the much shorter Ngapirau, are relatively inaccessible. Iwi and local residents have been notified.

The chemicals are from a category known as PFAS, which have been used as constituents of firefighting foam. They are also widely used in or on everyday items such as furniture and carpets, cooking equipment and food storage containers. New Zealand has no standards for PFAS chemicals in foodstuffs.

The Council’s Director-Environment Quality, Gary Bedford, says the Council decided to begin an investigation after environmental PFAS contamination was found in other regions earlier this year.
The firefighting foam was formulated for use on hydrocarbon fires in particular, and the Council focused on sites where it had been stored. In most cases, the companies involved were doing their own checks and investigations.

As well as the eel result, investigations have found:

  • Elevated levels of PFAS in groundwater at five sites: New Plymouth airport, the Paritūtū tank farm, the Omata tank farm, and the Māui Production Station and adjacent Hot Fire Training Facility at Oaonui. In each case, the groundwater is not known to be used to supply water for human or stock consumption, so there are no direct pathways for human health risk.
  • No detectable PFAS in samples of mussels taken from coastal waters near the Oaonui Stream mouth, Port Taranaki and the tank farms, and the mouths of the Waiwhakaiho River, Waiongana Stream and Waitara River. As they are in effect stationary filters, mussels are recognised as reliable indicators of the presence or otherwise of marine contamination.
  • Very low levels of PFAS in samples of watercress from the Oaonui and Ngapirau Streams. No PFAS chemicals were found in a control sample taken from a tributary of the Waingongoro River.

“It’s important to note that PFAS chemicals have been widely used in a range of consumer and industrial products,” says Mr Bedford. “People are exposed to small amounts of some PFAS in everyday life, through food, dust, air, water and contact with products that contain these compounds.”

He says the Council is continuing to work with the community and companies involved in environmental investigations and keeping stakeholders informed.

For more information about PFAS, see the Ministry for the Environment website: http://www.mfe.govt.nz/land/pfas-and-poly-fluoroalkyl-substances(external link)

MPI New Zealand Food Safety website: www.mpi.govt.nz/nzfoodsafety/ (external link)