‘It’s mentally killing us’: Residents affected by Williamtown PFAS can’t escape anguish
Aug 22 2019
It’s the first thing Fullerton Cove resident Kim Smith thinks about when she wakes up in the morning, and the last thing she thinks about before going to bed.
The Williamtown PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) contamination crisis has consumed the lives of many affected residents, and is taking a massive toll on their mental health.
A resident since 2011, Ms Smith admits she has trouble sleeping at night from the continued worry about the future of her family.
“The pressure it puts on you as a parent to knowingly contaminate your child, day in day out, is so intense,” she said.
“We moved over here from Western Australia, we loved the area. My daughter is into horses and wanted a little farm and to know we made that decision to move, we feel responsible for exposing these chemicals to our daughter.
“It just kills us, it mentally kills us.
“It takes a huge toll on your own health, your mental health, your marriage, on your relationship with your child, it never seems to end.
“If we’re lucky to get away from the area for a while and not think or talk about the issue, that’s great and then reality hits that you’ve got to come back home to this nightmare.”
Ms Smith revealed it’s hard to see that the crisis has hit her 19-year-old daughter hard.
“It was really hard for her because when this all happened, she was sitting her year 12 exams,” explained Ms Smith.
“She named this place cancer, she said ‘mum this place is just like a cancer’.
“She couldn’t handle being there and she wasn’t coming home. She would go and stay with her friends.
“She can’t talk about it, she doesn’t want to acknowledge it, she can’t mentally get her head around what is going on.”
Fullerton Cove resident Sue Walker said it has devastated a lot of residents, because it’s changed their lives so drastically and it’s now part of everyday living.
“You have to actually turn it off because it’s something that comes into every conversation at every time with different people,” she said.
“It’s just part of who we are now and that’s not right.
“It’s changed all our lives, we used to have a beautiful little community and properties but we can’t use our properties for what we bought them for anymore.”
Optimistic, Ms Walker is hopeful there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“You’ve just got to pick yourself up and keep going,” she said.
“I just wanted to know a date, when we can use our water again, when we can go back to our rural life, when will this be all over and no-one could tell me. When do we get our lives back.
“You bottle it up, try not to talk about it, try not to think about it but it’s constantly there.”
Katherine GP, Doctor Peter Stafford, knows all to well the dire effects to people’s mental health as the result of PFAS contamination.
Just like Williamtown, Katherine in the Northern Territory, is going through the same crisis.
Dr. Spafford himself is directly affected with the bore on his property contaminated by PFAS and the government refuses to cough up any compensation.
It means he has to use town water at his own expenses to grow his vegetable garden and look after his chooks.
“The biggest issue is that the government has failed in their duty of care,” he said.
“Residents here and Williamtown are concerned for their children’s health in the long term and their children’s children.
“They are devastated, they are shattered.”
As a local GP he sees the significant effect it has on local residents. Dr. Spafford is certain the continuation of the contamination crisis weighs heavily on people and their health is being compromised.
“It’s the element of uncertainty that eats away at us all,” said Dr. Spafford.
“We don’t know what this stuff does long term and that’s the biggest impact on people’s mental health.
“They are absolutely gutted their children will go through their reproductive years with elevated levels and there’s no evidence to say it is safe.
“To be healthy, you need a healthy mind and body and the mind bone is connected to the body bone. Not being able to cop mentally impacts the physical side of things.”
The financial woes are another factor.
“I’ve had numerous people trapped in this environment wanting to move on and been unable to do so because they cannot sell their property,” he explained.
“They’re stuck, they’re prisoners, stuck on a contaminated property and that impacts heavily.
“It’s not just worry about one’s health, it’s worry about one’s future, your finances, your freedom of movement, these are major infringements on human rights.”
Dr. Spafford claims the government’s health advice on PFAS is very scant and local doctors are given minimal information to provide to their patients.
“The document provided to GPs from the government doesn’t even have a date on it, so there’s no knowledge if it is going to be updated or has been updated,” he said.
“the government has not been very professional in this whole issue.
“I don’t know whether it is arrogance, ignorant or down right complacency.”
Meanwhile, the Federal government claims action to date has been very extensive including investigation of contaminated sites to understand impacts on communities and offers of information and advice to residents which includes providing mental health and counselling services.
In a statement to The Newcastle News, a Department of Environment and Energy spokesperson said there’s been funding research into human health effects, and research and development for remediation technologies, to ensure PFAS exposure pathways are broken wherever possible.
It stated dedicated counselling sessions remained available through the Hunter New England and Central Coast Primary Health Network (HNECC PHN), or community members could visit a GP.
The spokesperson also went on to say, individuals could access “Head to Health”, a digital mental health gateway that provides information, advice, and support.
The Department of Defence has implemented a range of remediation and management actions that aim to reduce the amount of PFAS in the local community and reduce further PFAS migration from RAAF Base Williamtown.
Further actions are planned to be conducted under the Williamtown PFAS Management Area Plan (PMAP) which was released in July 2019.