PFAS chemicals: Airports contaminated with 'forever chemicals' - Dublin Airport removes 150,000 tonnes of soil
Dublin Airport has removed 150,000 tonnes of soil after harmful 'forever chemicals' were detected - why are airports contaminated?
More than 150,000 tonnes of soil have been removed from Dublin Airport (DAA) after harmful ‘forever chemicals’ linked to various health issues were detected. The soil was shipped overseas after it received “extensive testing” due to the area being earmarked for the construction of a new aircraft apron.
The specialist Norwegian waste-treatment company Geminor was brought in to remove tens of thousands of tonnes of the soil from the airport and ship it to Norway for disposal. On its website, Bjorn Haland, the company’s head of hazardous waste, said the PFAS “challenge” in Europe was greater than most realise.
He added that “the main culprit at airports is firefighting foam from fire drills” and “today there are millions of tons of PFAS-contaminated materials waiting to be handled properly”. PFAS, (per- and poly-fluoroalkylated substances), have been widely used in fire-fighting foams designed to extinguish fuel fires. The DAA introduced a PFAS-free alternative foam in 2013 and earlier this year described PFAS as an “emerging issue”.
The DAA previously told the Irish Times it was aware of “increasing reports” relating to PFAS chemicals. Patrick Fagan, committee member at Santry Forum, a community residents group, who also sits on Dublin Airport’s Environmental Working Group, said more historic issues relating to the use of PFAS had to be addressed as well as what level of testing is being undertaken at the airport.
According to minutes from a meeting in November 2021, Mr Fagan raised the issue of foam use noting that it presented a potentially “big problem”. In a subsequent letter to former DAA chief executive Dalton Philips, he said run-off from the watercourses on the airfield flowed into the Santry river, a small watercourse on the north side of Dublin city which gave him “cause to be greatly concerned for health reasons.” At the time the DAA did not comment on concerns relating to potential river pollution.
PFAS are a group of nearly 9,000 chemicals valued for their oil and water-resistant properties. Two types, PFOA and PFOS, have been linked to serious health conditions affecting the stomach, liver and thyroid, but their use is now restricted.
The chemicals have been manufactured or imported into the UK for more than 90 years and are used in manufacturing, industrial and consumer cleaning products and cosmetics, as well as textiles, clothes, carpets and firefighting foam. Environment Agency testing suggests they are present in most groundwater, surface water, plants and animals in England.
New analysis from earlier this year by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) identified firefighting foam to be a significant source of PFAS pollution. It recommended that it should be a priority to restrict the use of foam with PFAS. After the report was released, Riccardo la Torre, national officer with the Fire Brigades Union, told the Independent: “We are still digesting this report and will be considering whether these recommendations go far enough to protect firefighters from the serious health risks of PFAS.” He added: “What is clear is that exposure to dangerous chemicals has been allowed to be part of firefighters’ work for far too long. Firefighters are getting ill and dying while the government and employers fail to act.”
The DAA told NationalWorld: "Like other airports world-wide, as well as fire stations, industrial sites, and the many other types of facility which have previously used products containing PFAS, we are taking all appropriate steps to manage and address this issue in full. Following extensive PFAS testing across the Dublin Airport site, an area where we are currently building a new apron was found to contain evidence of the presence of PFAS chemicals at low levels. However, regardless of how much PFAS is found in sample results, strict rules apply which require the soil to be dealt with.
"Given the lack of capacity in Ireland to deal the volume of soil movement involved, we arranged to have the bulk of the soil removed and treated in overseas facilities, in full compliance with all applicable regulations." The DAA added that it has "engaged with the relevant environmental regulators – the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Fingal County Council (FCC) - in managing this issue."