Read the full article by Leana Hosea and Rachel Salvidge (The Guardian)

“The oil depot fire raged for three days. ‘Wherever you looked, you could see devastation. The windows of the buildings were blown out and all the cars were damaged,’ recalls Wayne Crossman, a 43-year-old firefighter from London who attended the scene.

Crossman was among 250 firefighters deployed to the Buncefield oil depot in Hemel Hempstead early on a Sunday morning in December 2005. The explosion of the first oil tank was so intense it measured 2.4 on the Richter scale and ignited 20 more. Over 250,000 litres of firefighting foam was used to extinguish the flames, creating huge volumes of contaminated runoff.

The cause of Crossman’s myeloid leukaemia is not known and there is currently a lack of evidence to link it to PFAS, but he suspects it was the firefighting foam and his personal protective gear that has caused him harm.

‘Every day I was prepared to risk my life for a total stranger. I never expected the stuff we’re using or the kit we’re wearing to have health implications. At no point was I told that I could end up with cancer.’ Crossman’s rare form of cancer is difficult to treat, and he has had to retire early due to ill health.

Among the key ingredients in firefighting foams and PPE are the ‘forever chemicals’ PFAS, the name of a family of 10,000 compounds, none of which break down in the environment, may be toxic and build up in the body. Two PFAS have been linked to a wide range of diseases, including kidney and testicular cancer. Crossman is one of a group of firefighters in the UK and abroad who believe their contact with the chemicals may have made them seriously ill.

‘This is the highest issue on our agenda,’ says the Fire Brigades Union’s (FBU) Riccardo la Torre. He’s scathing about what he says is a lack of policy and inaction at all levels, from the National Fire Chiefs Council to government ministers. ‘They’re asleep at the wheel. Unlike in other countries, we don’t have health screening, and decontamination practices are only getting better because of the FBU’s campaign.’…

…It’s not just the firefighters who were exposed to PFAS from the Buncefield disaster. The chemicals from the firefighting foams washed into rivers via drains, water treatment plants, by wind and rain, and leached through the soil into the groundwater, to eventually come out of people’s taps.

Groundwater around St Albans was tested for PFAS after the fire. The Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) said no samples were ‘in excess of guidance’, which at the time was 3,000ng/l. But guidance has now been slashed to 100ng/l and the drinking water did exceed these. From 2006-7, 28 samples contained concentrations up to 5,910ng/l – 59 times higher than the current limits. Today, water companies would have been required to reduce the levels in the water before it reached people’s homes.

The DWI said the nearest drinking water abstraction point to Buncefield was removed from supply until 2009, from which point it was regularly monitored and did not exceed 3,000ng/l for PFOS, one of the regulated substances. It said it was removed from supply again in 2016 for sustainability reasons.

‘Were people drinking that PFAS? Of course they were. They didn’t have the same safety … system,’ said Dr Cecilia MacLeod, programme leader for wastewater and environmental engineering at the University of Greenwich. MacLeod was working for the Arcadis consultancy at the time of the fire and was brought in by the Environment Agency as an expert observer. MacLeod said she flagged up immediately that PFAS contamination of the water supply would be a problem…

…Crossman believes it is too late for his generation. He says he and his fellow firefighters were kept in the dark about potential health issues and not enough protections were put in place. It’s only in the past 10 years that changes are starting to happen, he says.

‘I have a son, George, who is 10 years old and if he wants to be a firefighter we’re fighting to make him safer and save him from cancer. As much as I loved what I did, I’m 43 now and having these health conditions I would try to discourage him unless policies are changed.'”…