Workplace regulator pays for mass testing of workers exposed to PFAS
April 8 2019
The Victorian workplace regulator is paying to test workers exposed to the toxic chemical PFAS while working in the gas industry in eastern Victoria.
- Workers in eastern Victoria worried about PFAS exposure will be tested by WorkSafe
- Some of the workers were employed at Exxon Mobil’s Australian plant at Longford
- Unions say the pilot testing scheme is over-subscribed
WorkSafe Victoria has provided $40,000 to the Electrical Trades Union to test up to 100 people who worked at Esso’s Longford gas plant and its Bass Strait gas platforms.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, are chemicals used in firefighting foams since the 1970s.
PFAS was used on defence bases, airports and industrial sites and has been linked to numerous health problems.
Last year a second parliamentary inquiry into PFAS recommended the Federal Government start a long-term blood testing program to track health impacts and review its advice on the health effects of PFAS exposure.
PFAS was used at Exxon Mobil’s Australian plant at Longford in eastern Victoria, run by subsidiary Esso, for about 40 years until 2008.
In 2017, Environment Protection Authority Victoria said PFAS had been detected in bores, dams and drainage lines near Esso’s Gippsland gas plant.
Last year, the ABC revealed Esso had been buying up farmland near its Longford plant.
Gas giant refuses to pay for worker testing
Esso is funding an extensive soil and water testing regime near its gas facility, but refuses to test thousands of workers who may have been exposed to high levels of PFAS at the plant or on its offshore platforms.
Esso spokesman Travis Parnaby said the company was guided by Australian and Victorian government agencies who “do not recommend blood testing for PFAS due to their non-diagnostic value”.
“In accordance with this advice, Esso is not offering blood tests,” Mr Parnaby said.
In April last year, the Electrical Trades Union tested a handful of people who had worked on Esso’s sites.
One of them was Rob Lyndon, who returned a high reading.
His blood test for perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) which belonged to the PFAS group of chemicals, revealed a reading of 70 nanograms per millilitre.
Health experts say no level of PFAS is considered safe, but the Department of Health said in 2011 the average PFOS reading for a person over 60 was 5.6ng/ml.
Mr Lyndon said he was “astounded and quite stressed” by his results and there was little advice on what the reading meant.
“We don’t really know how bad we actually are, and what the consequence of it is,” he said.
It was after Mr Lyndon’s high reading that the ETU secured the $40,000 from WorkSafe to test up to 100 workers.
Documents seen by the ABC say the test results will be “part of epidemiological study to improve the understanding of the potential health effects of PFAS exposure”.
Fiskville crisis raised the alarm
Another worker tested was Peter Vickers from Lakes Entrance, an offshore maintenance worker on Esso’s platforms for 15 years until 2017.
It wasn’t until CFA firefighters at Fiskville raised the alarm that he realised his health could also be at risk from exposure to firefighting foam.
Mr Vickers suffered from colon cancer in 2015.
He said when they shut down the platforms for maintenance “they would deluge the platforms” with the firefighting foam to check if the fire-suppression system worked.
“We would be walking through the foam, ankle deep, sometimes it would be six-foot high in the corners,” he said.
“We were always told it was safe.”
He said up to 50 workers could be present when they did this, and exposed to the chemicals.
“If it’s airborne, we were copping it,” he said.
“Then to find out it’s not safe and it’s bad for you, it brings concerns to people.”
Each blood test costs about $500 and Mr Vickers said the company not WorksSafe, which is funded by businesses’ insurance premiums, should pay for testing.
“I believe Exxon Mobil should pay to have every one of their ex-employees and contractors PFAS tested,” he said.
“They were the ones who sent people to work, they were given the duty of care,” he said.
“If they haven’t complied with that they should be liable.”
Union ‘inundated’ with test requests
Malcolm Wood, who started work with Esso in the late ’70s, was this week waiting on his test results.
Mr Wood said he was worried about his PFAS exposure and what role it might have in his auto-immune problems, which developed in 2002.
Mr Wood said all former Esso workers and contractors should get a blood test.
“Blanket testing should be carried out to for all employees who has been exposed to PFAS,” he said.
“I have work colleagues who have had enormous exposure to these chemicals. It’s a real concern to me.”
ETU Gippsland organiser Peter Mooney said the pilot testing scheme was over-subscribed and they would approach WorkSafe again if demand continued.
“We have been inundated with workers wanting to be tested,” Mr Mooney said.
“We think we might need to do another 100 once we get the initial 100 tests back.”