More than 150,000 tonnes of soil have been removed from Dublin Airport and shipped overseas following the discovery of potentially harmful “forever chemicals”.
PFAS (per-and poly-fluoroalkylated substances) are linked to various human health issues and have become a legacy problem around the world, including in airports due to their previous use in firefighting foam.
They were detected following recent “extensive” testing at Dublin Airport and contaminated soil was subsequently removed from an area earmarked for the construction of a new aircraft apron.
More generally, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the substances have been used in a wide variety of consumer products including stain-resistant or waterproofing agents, upholstery and carpets and non-stick coatings.
The Mark Ruffalo film Dark Waters brought them additional notoriety in its depiction of the use of one such substance, PFOA, in Teflon products produced by DuPont.
In recent months, the specialist Norwegian waste-treatment company Geminor was brought in to remove tens of thousands of tonnes of soil from Dublin Airport and ship it to Norway for appropriate disposal.
On its website, Bjorn Haland, the company’s head of hazardous waste, said the PFAS “challenge” in Europe was greater than most realise.
“The main culprit at airports is firefighting foam from fire drills. Today, there are millions of tons of PFAS-contaminated materials waiting to be handled properly,” he said. Mr Haland did not immediately respond to requests for comment on its Dublin operation.
DAA, which runs the airport, noted similarly that PFAS have been found in water and soil in the majority of countries around the world.
“Like other airports worldwide, 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,” its media relations manager Graeme McQueen said.
“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.”
The operation was in full compliance with all applicable regulations, Mr McQueen noted and he said both the EPA and Fingal County Council were notified.
Earlier this year, DAA described PFAS as an “emerging issue” and was examining its potential impact.
The possible presence of the chemicals and the need to test for them, had previously been raised by the Santry Forum committee, concerned about the risk of them entering the Santry River.
Three years ago, committee member Patrick Fagan brought up the issue at a meeting of Dublin Airport’s Environmental Working Group, on which he sits, saying it presented a potentially “big problem”.
In a subsequent letter to former DAA chief executive Dalton Philips, Mr Fagan said possible run-off from the watercourses at the airport “gives me cause to be greatly concerned for health reasons.”
In a 2021 study commissioned by the EPA, approximately 18,000 litres of PFAS foams were found to have been held by fire services across the country that responded to their research.
PFAS break down very slowly, if at all, in the environment. They can also leak into streams, rivers and groundwater and can end up in drinking water.
Once consumed, they can increase in concentration in the body and can affect the hormonal, immune and reproductive systems, as well as being possibly carcinogenic.
“They can have harmful effects on human and animal health and stay in the environment and in our bodies for long periods of time where they can increase in concentration,” the EPA has explained.
Some types, it added, have been linked to increased risk of cancer, high cholesterol, reproductive disorders and a weakening of the immune system.