2018 July – Cobaki Broadwater (New South Wales) – PFOS

PFAS: Expert submits warning via federal inquiry that contamination more widespread than reported


July 17 2018

A contamination expert is warning a federal parliamentary inquiry that the spread of potentially harmful chemicals once used in firefighting foam is likely to have affected many more parts of Australia than previously reported.

The expert said the sites included all Australian airports, all landfill sites, and any locations where there had been a large fuel or chemical fire in the past 50 years.

Adding to concerns, the ABC understands the Queensland Government, in its submission to the federal inquiry, said it knew of 15 sites in the state with contamination, including seven airports.

It told the federal inquiry a further and full investigation was needed to determine “the nature and extent of PFAS contamination at airports”.

Last year, researchers from two Queensland universities estimated Australia has 600 registered landfill sites, and up to 2,000 unregulated ones.

In his submission to the inquiry, Associate Professor Robert Niven, from the University of NSW in Canberra, said sites highly likely to be contaminated with PFAS chemicals included:

  • Australian firefighter training sites
  • offshore and onshore oil and gas facilities
  • road tanker fuel loading facilities
  • chemical storage facilities
  • wastewater treatment plants
  • ports importing or exporting fuels; and
  • rail facilities where fuel was stored.

Queensland Health Minister Steven Miles said the Federal Government needed to do more to address community concerns on PFAS.

“They’ve failed frankly in managing the sites that they are responsible for,” he said.

“Understandably there is a very high level of community concern about these pollutants.

“We’ve called upon the Commonwealth to ban their use federally, they continue to use them at sites that they regulate.”

The State Government’s submission also suggested the Commonwealth offer blood tests to people who have been potentially exposed to high levels of the chemicals.

High PFAS levels revealed

The environmental engineer’s warning comes as the ABC can reveal a woman living near and working at the Gold Coast’s airport, where contamination has been confirmed, had blood tests that showed her PFAS levels were in the top 5 per cent of results for her age.

Jackie McDonald worked at the airport as an Aboriginal stakeholder overseeing cultural sites and has regularly eaten seafood from the neighbouring Cobaki Broadwater where the chemicals have been detected.

Her blood tests show her PFOS (a type of PFAS chemical) levels are within the top 5 per cent of results for people her age.

PFAS chemicals have been linked to lower birth weights in babies, reduced kidney function and increased cholesterol.

An Australian expert panel found the chemicals did not pose an increase in overall cancer risk, but the Environment Protection Authority in the US where the chemicals were manufactured has warned there were “limited” findings linking some of the chemicals to cancer.

Ms McDonald said she did not know what her results meant for her health.

“I am constantly listening to my body to see if it is telling me anything, it is a constant worry,” she said.

“I don’t know what it is caused by. Is it caused by exposure while I have been in and out of the airport? Or is it caused by exposure from any past contamination in the Cobaki?” she said.

Ms McDonald is a member of the community group the Tugun Cobaki Alliance, which has previously raised concerns about PFAS contamination at the Gold Coast airport.

She wants further testing of PFAS contamination in the area and more blood tests for workers and residents.

“How many people might have PFAS in their blood the same as myself, if not higher? Something is causing it,” she said.

Calls for more chemical investigations, blood tests

In his submission to the federal inquiry, which is focusing on Defence bases, Associate Professor Niven said that all of the possible PFAS large contamination sites in Australia need to be investigated by the Federal Government.

He said residents living near such sites should demands investigations and questioned why a national investigation has not yet taken place yet.

He said that all industrial sites that likely had PFAS exposure and have been redeveloped for commercial or housing use “must be considered suspect”.