Mercury scare for Morwell and Traralgon CFA

MORWELL and Traralgon fire station members were left in limbo last week, after a sample of protective equipment returned with a positive testing to mercury contamination.

Teams from the two brigades responded to a mercury spill on Sunday, 31 May at a block of flats in Traralgon.

A sample of protective clothing was sent for testing following a routine cleaning procedure, and returned on Wednesday with a positive mercury result. Country Fire Authority southeast regional commander Bryan Russell said a number of precautionary measures were taken to protect the welfare of all affected members.

“We isolated everything involved in the job just to isolate the risk,” Mr Russell said.

“We want to make sure the welfare of our members is our number one priority.”

Mr Russell said up to 30 members who were involved in the initial response would go through a medical screening and receive advice from a CFA doctor.

Mercury poisoning can sometimes take weeks or months to appear, although symptoms from a chemical spill might appear more rapidly.

Skin conditions, breathing problems, memory loss, muscle weakness and mood changes are among the indicators.

Mercury levels can be proven through blood and urine tests.

United Firefighters Union national secretary Peter Marshall said the system needed to be reviewed, to ensure a similar case of contamination did not occur again.

“Of course that places pressure on the system,” Mr Marshall said.

“Given the nature of the job being so dangerous – anything you can do to virtually minimise that danger should be done.”

Four trucks from each station were sent offline and two trucks from Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs arrived at the weekend, while an industrial hygienist tested all equipment.

The hygienist also returned to the initial response site on Gwalia Street to “reassure” the groups involved that no mercury had been left lingering.

Mr Russell acknowledged there was some risk in a potential domino effect on any members who have since used the equipment.

“The results from our industrial hygienist will dictate where we go with this,” he said.

“If he says the gear on the fire trucks is contaminated, we will put a system in place for those at Morwell and Traralgon.”

In the meantime, he moved to assure the Latrobe Valley community fire response services would continue as normal.

“In terms of fire coverage for the Latrobe Valley, it’s not diminished at this stage,” he said.

“We have our normal support arrangements in place.

“It’s the same scenario as in those busy fire situations – the Latrobe Valley fire service will continue.”

The industrial hygienist has confirmed the initial site to be clear of mercury, while results from the protective equipment are expected to arrive today.

The CFA will begin a review of its clean-up procedures this week.