Workers fear for health after ‘dangerous’ chemicals
PORT of Townsville workers have potentially been exposed to toxic chemicals, as authorities investigate an alleged spill.
Smit Lamnalco, which has the towage contract at the port, was visited by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and Workplace Health and Safety Queensland yesterday over its handling of the removal of firefighting foam from its tug boats.
The Maritime Union of Australia claims workers have been given the task of removing the foam over past months. It alleges on one occasion when it was being pumped into a truck, chemicals spilled out onto concrete at the wharf and on another occasion spilt into the water.
"The maritime union is concerned our members have been contaminated by dangerous chemicals which at this stage the company is denying is PFAS," Queensland branch assistant secretary Paul Gallagher said.
"We have no choice but to go to the authorities."
Mr Gallagher said workers were left feeling ill and vomiting after they inhaled the vapours from the firefighting foam when a tank containing it was opened.
A Townsville Port spokeswoman said it was not notified of the onsite visit yesterday, but had been made aware of an incident "involving a towage company's workers" by the authority.
"With regard to PFAS, in 2017/early 2018 the port made all users/customers aware that a change in legislation was being enacted to phase out firefighting foams containing PFAS chemicals," she said.
PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a group of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many other chemicals.
The Townsville Bulletin understands up to 25 "furious" crew workers want to be tested to see if they have been contaminated by PFAS. After their exposure to the substance, a number of workers have recorded abnormally high cholesterol levels that they didn't have previously.
The Bulletin has seen a material safety data sheet produced by the manufacturer of the firefighting foam contained on the tug boats, which lists perfuloroalkyl sulfonate as an "ingredient", however there isn't a searchable chemical by this name.
The document warns users to "avoid inhaling smoke and fumes" and to "ventilate closed areas before returning".
The Bulletin understands concerns have been raised over the adequacy of the safety equipment used by staff when they were removing the foam.
A Department of Environment and Science spokesman said officers were reviewing information.
"The department … is making inquiries into a possible PFAS related matter at the Townsville Port after receiving advice regarding an incident involving an allegation of fighting foam having been spilled," the spokesman said.
"In 2016 the Queensland Government was the first jurisdiction in Australia to ban the future use of PFOS and PFOA firefighting foams, with a three-year phase out by June 2019."
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority was contacted for comment.
Smit Lamnalco was contacted for comment.