Chemicals from a category known as PFAS were formerly used as constituents of firefighting foam. PFAS contamination has been found in a number of regions, including Taranaki.
The Taranaki Regional Council has found eels in the Oaonui stream and the much shorter Ngapirau Stream, with elevated levels of chemicals associated with firefighting foam – the only finding of note in a wide-ranging regional investigation into any such contamination.
The two streams are relatively inaccessible. Iwi and local residents have been notified. The potential long-term effects of these chemicals on human health and the environment are unclear and the subject of ongoing research at central government and international levels.
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. There is public everyday exposure to PFAS through household dust and a wide variety of foodstuffs.
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.
The Ministry for the Environment is overseeing and coordinating the response to PFAS contamination nationally. Agencies each have their own particular roles and responsibilities.
Ministry for the Environment: Overall responsibility for administering the Resource Management Act 1991 (the core legislation relating to managing contaminated land) and the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 (regulates how hazardous substances are managed across their lifecycle). MfE is leading an ’all of government’ programme of PFAS investigations in NZ.
Regional councils: Investigate, identify and monitor contaminated sites.
Territorial authorities (district councils): Can control land use to prevent or mitigate any adverse effects from contamination. Required to provide safe reticulated drinking water for the public. Administer trade waste by-laws relevant to the disposal of waste containing PFAS.
Environmental Protection Authority: Assessment and management of PFAS-containing hazardous substances. Enforce prohibitions on the import, manufacture, storage and use of chemicals that are internationally recognised as persistent organic pollutants, including PFOS, which is a member of the PFAS category.
Worksafe NZ: Minimisation of risks to the health and safety of people in workplaces (including farms) resulting from either direct exposure to PFAS or through contaminated drinking water. Enforcement of the HSNO Act in workplaces.
Ministry of Health: Providing advice to protect and promote public health via the District Health Boards.
Ministry for Primary Industries: Assess and control risks to human health from the consumption of agricultural products that may have been contaminated with PFAS, and risks to animal welfare from PFAS impacted stockwater.
The main objectives of Taranaki Public Health are to assist the Taranaki Regional Council, Ministry for the Environment and the Ministry for Primary Industries; and to provide public health advice in the health risk assessment (exposure assessment) and management of this contamination event.
Actions to date include:
- The South Taranaki District Council, on the advice of the Medical Officer of Health, has erected health warning signs at the end of lower Kina Road adjacent to the Oaonui River mouth. It is beneath the toxic shellfish warning in the photo here.
- The Taranaki District Health Board has posted a message on Facebook and created a webpage on fire fighting foam contamination and health: http://www.tdhb.org.nz/services/public_health/PFAS.shtml(external link).
This Facebook poster was developed in partnership with Te Kāhui o Taranaki and Ministry for Primary Industries. People who regularly eat fish or eels from the Oaonui and Ngapirau streams are invited to contact Taranaki Public Health if they are worried about their health.
- A DHB health promoter is currently working with Te Kāhui o Taranaki to find out if there are people who collect mahinga kai from the Oaonui or Ngapirau streams who are concerned about their health. So far no one has contacted us with health questions.
The Ministry has provisionally advised that eels and fish from the Oaonui Stream should not be consumed. For Ngapirau Stream, it says consumption should be limited to no more than one meal a month for adults and children.
The Ministry says that while there is no current evidence to suggest an increase in overall health risk related to PFAS exposure, it is taking a precautionary approach.
“To our knowledge, these are the first test results to be released on the levels of PFAS in New Zealand fish species around PFAS contaminated sites. International science continues to develop on PFAS contamination in fish and waterways. There is growing evidence which shows that fish species can carry higher PFAS levels.
“Eels are high in the food chain and also tend to stay confined to smaller stretches of waterways - it’s therefore not surprising that they can carry higher PFAS levels. Overseas investigations in Australia, the Netherlands, Sweden and Canada have shown similar ranges of PFAS levels in freshwater fish species.”
The Council will continue to engage directly with the local community, iwi and hapū to keep them informed of the ongoing investigation and follow up any questions or concerns.
A further sampling programme around the Oaonui stream area is currently being designed to improve understanding of the issue.
The Wood Group continues to work proactively with the regulatory authorities and has removed all firefighting foams from site. Only water is being used and reticulated for fire training and no discharge is taking place.
Investigations by companies of sites that have potentially been impacted by foam use are ongoing.
Taranaki Regional Council: Victoria McKay, Science Manager – Chemistry. Phone 06 756 7127, Mobile 027 479 2240 email email@example.com
Taranaki District Health Board Public Health Unit: Dr Jonathan Jarman, Medical Officer of Health. Phone 06 753 7798 ext 8501, mobile 027 520 1788 email firstname.lastname@example.org
South Taranaki District Council: Doug Scott, Regulatory Services Manager. Phone 06 278 0555, email Doug.Scott@stdc.govt.nz
Ministry for the Environment: Suzanne Pollard, PFAS Communications. Mobile 027 244 9335 email email@example.com
For additional information on PFAS and the response, please visit: www.mfe.govt.nz/land/pfas-and-poly-fluoroalkyl-substances (external link)
This web page (www.trc.govt.nz/pfas-investigation/) will carry future updates from the Taranaki Regional Council.