PFAS Water Contamination

PFAS is an acronym for a group of chemical compounds known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances. They are a class of man-made chemicals that have been used since the 1950s in the production of a wide range of products that resist heat, stains, grease and water, including furniture protectants, floor wax and specialised firefighting foam. PFOS (perfluorooctane sulphonate), PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFHxS (perfluorohexane sulphonic acid) are compounds in the PFAS family.

PFAS at Palmerston North Airport

An investigation of soil and surface water at locations at the Palmerston North Airport has revealed the presence of PFAS in all the samples analysed.

PFAS was understood to have been used at Palmerston North Airport for fire training purposes up until the late 1980s. Since this time, approximately 250 litres of firefighting foam has been used for the testing of fire truck foam systems. Testing with foam ceased in December 2017.

Testing for PFAS contamination at the airport commenced in early 2018. In early September 2018 the test results were received and indicated that samples displayed elevated levels of PFAS. The seven surface water results were all above interim drinking water guidelines.

Affected waterways are not used for watertakes. Everyone on the Palmerston North water supply can be reassured it is not contaminated and is safe for consumption. MidCentral DHB Public Health Services advises the public that there should be no concerns about acute health issues caused by exposure to PFAS. However, a precautionary approach in regards to the long-term health effects should be taken by any potentially affected members of the public who live near the airport and are consuming water that is not on the city drinking water supply.

The Ministry for Primary Industries recommends that people avoid gathering food such as eels and watercress at:

  • Mangaone Stream
  • Richardsons Line Drain (including its headwater tributaries that cross Railway Road to the east of the Airport)
  • Various streams near the Airport flowing through – Madison Ave and Jefferson Cres area, Clearview Park and McGregor Street
A working group with representatives from Palmerston North Airport Limited (PNAL), Horizons Regional Council, Palmerston North City Council, and MidCentral DHB Public Health Services has adopted a collaborative, transparent and proactive approach to determine the extent of any potential PFAS contamination. Investigations are ongoing.

Where can people go to for further information?

PFAS around Ohakea Airbase

Local residents will recall that late in 2017 the Government announced it was testing some properties around the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) Ohakea airbase for possible water contamination from PFAS compounds.

This followed the discovery of contamination on the base itself, arising from the past use of certain firefighting foams. NZDF has not used these foams since 2002.

Testing of neighbouring properties found that a number had drinking water containing PFAS compounds (part of the firefighting foam) above the Ministry of Health guidelines. People at affected properties have been offered alternative drinking water and individual health and food safety advice. This advice differs between properties depending on their particular circumstances.

The testing area is determined by scientific ground water modelling, and only those people whose properties fall within the testing area are being contacted directly by NZDF. If you have not been contacted by NZDF your property is believed to be outside the affected area.

This is a complex and sensitive issue for the people at the affected properties and for the community in general. So local and central government agencies are working closely together to ensure it is handled appropriately. Residents’ wellbeing is of the utmost importance.

Here are some important facts that residents in the area need to be aware of:

  • The advice of health officials is that there is no acute health risk, but a precautionary approach is being taken because the long-term health effects are not certain.  
  • The advice of the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is that there is no wider food safety issue.  MPI tested milk from dairy farms around Ohakea and found nothing of concern. Milk is a useful sign post, as it is likely to pick up the contamination.
  • If your property has been identified as being affected please take up the offer of alternative drinking water and follow any health or food safety advice you have been given. For further information call 0800 668 766.
  • More information is available on the Ministry for the Environment’s website