Mick Tisbury’s 12-year fight to protect firefighters from PFAS toxic foam contamination

Melbourne firefighter Mick Tisbury has always known his work is dirty and dangerous. Running into a thousand-degree inferno presents some obvious risks. “If you’ve got half a brain, you’d be running out,” he says.

It’s not just the flames and the heat. Firefighters are exposed to thousands of carcinogens on the job. In July, the World Health Organization classified firefighting as a cancer-causing occupation.

By and large this just comes with the territory, Mick tells Australian Story. “If a chemical storage facility goes up in flames, we have to do whatever is needed to put it out.”

But there are some risks he firmly believes no firefighter should have to take. “Training should be safe. And the special foam we use to extinguish chemical fires should not pose a risk to human health or the environment when there are perfectly good alternatives.”

A group photo of 38 firefighters in yellow uniforms and holding helmets, stand for a group photo at training centre outdoors
2012 MFB recruits, covered in firefighting foam, pose for a group photo.(Supplied: Tony Martin)

Mick joined the Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) at 21, following in the footsteps of his father Keith, a district officer. Mick had “pedigree”, says his 1989 recruit course alumni, David Hamilton. “He always had an opinion and if he saw something wrong, he’d challenge it, or at least question it.”

So when Mick started to hear a firefighting training facility in rural Victoria might be contaminated with dangerous chemicals, exposing the truth became an obsession. One he would pursue so single-mindedly it would eventually have unexpected blowback, leaving his family, and himself, fearful for their welfare.

Mick acknowledges he put noses out of joint, but his rationale for sticking at his investigation was simple. His job was to protect firefighters and his community. When he came across an unfamiliar chemical compound name in secret documents, Mick realised Victoria was caught up in a contamination disaster facing people worldwide.

He set his sights on finding solutions for everyone. And along the way he’s helped find an ingenious solution to help firefighters “rid” their bodies of what’s been coined “forever chemicals”.

“I don’t have university degrees; I’m just an idiot firefighter. But I trusted my gut. I kept trusting my gut. And we’re kicking goals.”

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Mick says firefighters know they are doing a dangerous job, but PFAS was a threat that could have been avoided.

Cancer cluster reports prompt fight for answers

It was late December 2011 and Mick was on a lunch break when he saw a story in The Herald Sun about a possible cancer cluster at the Fiskville Training College, a huge facility run by the Country Fire Authority (CFA). 

Fiskville coverage
Brian Potter was the first to blow the whistle on the effects of toxic chemicals at Fiskville.(Supplied)

Much-respected former head of the organisation, Brian Potter, was speaking out about concerns he’d raised internally since retirement, to no avail.

He was battling an autoimmune disease and multiple cancers possibly related to his time at Fiskville.

Mick had been taking trainees to the facility, 95 kilometres west of Melbourne, sporadically for a decade as an instructor. The rural setting made it perfect for the city-based MFB to teach recruits how to put out chemical fires, the kind that generate a lot of smoke and waste prohibited in built-up areas.

Aerial view of the Fiskville training facility surrounded by trees and grass fields
Thousands of people were put at risk of exposure to highly toxic chemicals at and around the Fiskville Training College between 1972 and 2015.(Australian Story: Simon Winter)

At first, Mick thought the story must be a beat-up. He had always believed the CFA when it assured him it ran a safe shop.

Mick was a union delegate at the time, and soon started taking calls from concerned instructors and course candidates. But when he badgered both the CFA and his own employer for proof the facility was safe, he got nowhere. “This started alarm bells ringing,” Mick says. “And the more you started looking, the scarier it became.”

A group of firefighters in yellow uniforms on a concrete training area with foam and water on the ground
The  MFB recruits working with PFAS chemicals.(Supplied: Tony Martin)

He started writing Freedom of Information requests in his own time, but all he received in return were “boxes and boxes of often heavily redacted material that were useless”. Eventually, he got access to site reports dating back to the 1980s containing warnings about unsafe work practices, contamination and the need for remediation. He was shocked to discover he’d been unwittingly exposing trainees, and himself, to danger.

Then he phoned Ruth Lamperd, the experienced journalist who wrote the article, and together they started swapping documents and digging for more. So began an unlikely alliance.

A man sits and a woman stands in a kitchen looking down at documents on the bench
Mick and former journalist Ruth Lamperd joined forces to dig deeper into the chemical contamination at Fiskville.(Australian Story: Simon Winter )

At times his passion was exhausting. “I’d get phone calls in the middle of the night with something that just occurred to him,” she says. “Mick was determined to get to the bottom of what chemicals were used there and what risk they posed to human health.”

“I go to a lot of firefighters’ funerals,” Mick says. “And the only people there are the family and firefighters burying their mates. You never see a government official there. You never see a chemical company official there or the salesmen selling their products. But when one of your colleagues gets crook or passes on, it hurts you and you want to stop that happening again.” 

A man's hand points to a sentence on a page of a document
Documents obtained by Mick showed traces of PFAS at the Fiskville college as early as 2000.(Australian Story: Simon Winter)

‘Forever chemicals’ having impact years later

MFB instructor Tony Martin had run many courses at the CFA training college over the years.

But when he was lucky enough to survive a brain aneurysm, he gave little thought to what caused it.

Fire fighters empty green-tinted water from a fire truck
A photo taken in 2012 shows the green, contaminated water flowing from a fire truck at Fiskville. (Supplied: Tony Martin)

In mid-2012, Tony texted Mick a photo of the water that his recruits were using to do firefighting exercises at Fiskville. It was green and, according to Tony, smelt awful. Mick told him to stop the training immediately, and for a while, his bosses agreed to err on the side of safety and suspended training at the facility.

Soon after that, Tony had to be treated for two more aneurysms, this time on the other side of his brain.

“I can’t prove that was from that visit to Fiskville or the cumulative effect over the years of all the stuff I deal with in firefighting,” he says. “But when I was diagnosed the following year with prostate cancer that certainly opened my eyes and got my head running about why it occurred now.”

Tony was later found to have pancreatic cancer too, but the tumour was benign.

A portrait of a man waist-up with serious facial expression
Former Fiskville instructor Tony Martin says firefighters would often come up in rashes after working at the college.(Australian Story: Simon Winter)

Then Mick had a breakthrough. He received some results for monthly water testing at Fiskville. Every so often there was a separate page with two mysterious acronyms: PFOS and PFOA.

It was the first he had heard of these chemicals, which had been active ingredients in the firefighting foam they’d been using to fight flammable liquid fires. He then rang UK-based expert Dr Roger Klein, a medical doctor and physical chemist who had advised fire services around the world on the issue.

A firefighter in uniform and helmet stands in front of a fire truck wearing sunglasses
Tony pictured on the job in 2007.(Supplied: Tony Martin)

He explained how PFOS and PFOA were part of a bigger group of man-made chemicals known as PFAS, which stands for perfluoroalkyl substances.

Often referred to as “the forever chemicals”, they’re extremely heat resistant, spread quickly, and aren’t easily broken down.

They were used on textiles and leather to make them stain and water resistant, in food packaging and on non-stick cookware. But firefighting foam is probably “the most dispersive” use of PFAS molecules.

“When you’re fighting a fire, you can’t contain all the foam and it gets into waterway; the waterways ultimately drain into the ocean where they spread across the planet,” Dr Klein says. “PFAS molecules have been found in fresh snow on Everest. They’ve been found in both polar regions. Every person on the planet is contaminated to some extent.”

Before the 1980s, the Victorian firefighting services had used a protein-based product made of “blood and bone” to suppress liquid chemical fires. Micks says the new foam was made by the multinational company 3M and was called Light Water. “We loved it,” he says. “It didn’t reek like the old foam and was more effective.”

Mick Tisbury in a navy firefighter uniform listens in a meeting at a round table
Mick was successful in pushing for a Victorian parliamentary inquiry into the CFA’s handling of toxic chemicals at Fiskville.(Australian Story: Simon Winter)

The PFAS chemical family has been linked to thyroid disease, autoimmune disease, elevated levels of cholesterol, low foetal weight, testicular and kidney cancer. It lingers for decades if not centuries in the environment and has a half-life in the human body of between five and eight years, which is considered “extremely persistent,” Dr Klein says.

Mick was taken aback. He and his colleagues had been told the foam was safe. Firefighters would hose down the engine bays to get rid of the oil and clean the station barbecues with it. Mick remembers at Christmas they’d cover his station in foam to make it look festive.

Four male firefighters in navy uniforms chat at a round table
Mick Tisbury (far right) and David Hamilton (centre right) are now working with experts on how best to clean up the PFAS contamination in and around fire stations.(Australian Story: Simon Winter)

Chemicals leach into surrounding land

Yet, by the time Mick made his discovery, the potential dangers of PFAS had been known for decades.

According to testimony given to the US House of Representatives in 2019, as early as the 1950s, 3M had discovered in its own animal studies that PFAS was toxic.

When it sold the chemical to Dupont to make Teflon cookware, 3M included a Material Safety Data Sheet, dated 1997, with a label reading, “Cancer warning: Contains a chemical which can cause cancer”, and cited studies the two companies had jointly conducted. Dupont removed the labels.

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