The Wilson family home at Albion Park Rail is just a stone’s throw from the Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) training site under investigation for elevated levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS) linked to the use of firefighting foam.
While their address places them in proximity to the toxic threat, a family history of direct contact with the foam has raised questions about what the PFAS contamination means for them and their health.
A Fairfax Media investigation has revealed the Albion Park FRNSW training site – off Airport Road in Albion Park Rail – was one of 90 locations across the country being investigated by authorities. At all but a handful of those locations, most residents were oblivious to the toxic threat lurking nearby.
Neither Donna Wilson or her sister, Sharon Jeffery, were aware of the investigation under way at the Albion Park FRNSW site – a site they can see, through a cluster of trees, from the back fence of the family home. Donna stills lives in the house, on the Princes Highway, which has been in the Wilson family for 58 years. Sharon, 57, now resides in Berry, but returns regularly to help her sister.
Sharon recalled times spent playing with her brother in the trees near the training site, where they’d find big holes in the dirt filled with “a lot of rubbish and other things that when we were 10 and 11 we didn’t know what they were”. After it rained, the pair would use a slug gun to shoot tadpoles in the holes, she said, adding the area later became a motorbike track.
The family was also “heavily involved” with the bush fire brigade, now the Rural Fire Service, at Albion Park.
“Our grandad was the fire control officer, dad was the captain and all our uncles were deputy captains,” Sharon said. “We couldn’t wait for them to come home ... in the fire trucks and they would put the leftover foam in cattle yards in Albion Park Showground. We’d hop in there and play for hours, ‘til the foam probably just went into the ground or just disappeared – and we did that quite, quite often.
“All the kids played in it … it was a lot of fun and we didn’t think anything of it.”
Asked if she was worried about potential implications now, Sharon said she was “very concerned” after seeing a story about PFAS on ABC TV. A NSW RFS spokesman said the organisation introduced foams containing PFAS in the 1990s and ceased purchasing them in 2005. “It should be noted that foams containing PFAS were designed for use on petrol and oil fires, not bush fires, so NSW RFS use of this type of foam was significantly less than that of urban and aviation based fire services,” he said. “The Albion Park Showgrounds were not identified by the NSW RFS as an area where foams containing PFAS had been used.”
In a statement, FRNSW said it had distributed a fact sheet to 1700 people within a 1.4 km radius of the site, while a water use survey was sent to 176 people.
“Responses indicated that nearly all residents were using the reticulated water supply (town water) and only two were using rain water. Both of these water supply sources are at no risk of PFAS contamination,” FRNSW said.