Gippsland farmer says PFAS exposure from military base caused his cancer, demands Government action
March 5 2020
A Victorian farmer whose property borders RAAF Base East Sale has blamed contamination from firefighting foam used on the base for his cancer.
Graeme Lawless said he never touched the foam, but the spray left residue on his property that he and his brother used to walk through to catch the school bus.
“Back in the 1960s [the Air Force] used to run up and down the strips and spray foam everywhere. They had to empty their tanks twice a day and refill them,” he said.
Last month, an
‘in-principle’ settlement was reached between the Australian Government and residents of three communities who had their groundwater contaminated by toxic firefighting foams used at defence bases until the early 2000s.
Residents from Williamtown in New South Wales, Oakey in Queensland, and Katherine in the Northern Territory had each brought class actions which contended that the Department of Defence was liable for depressed land values and business outlooks.
Government claims there is no evidence
A beef farmer, Mr Lawless was also worried that he was consuming contaminated water and meat produced on his land.
Seven years ago he was diagnosed with severe testicular cancer, which is recognised in Germany, Britain, and the United States as one of the conditions that can be caused by PFAS exposure.
However, according to practice leader in class actions with Shine Lawyers, Joshua Aylward, the Australian Government claimed there was no evidence of such health implications.
“The Australian guidelines are shocking. They are the highest and most liberal out of anywhere in the Western world,” he said.
“It is highly probable that these chemicals will give you kidney cancer, will give you testicular cancer, and at the very least give you high cholesterol.”
“The Government is throwing its hands up in the air and saying ‘well the science is still uncertain, we’ve found some scientists who say we don’t know, so we’re not gonna do too much about it’.”
Mr Aylward said in parts of the US the acceptable level of one of these dangerous chemicals in drinking water, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), was 150 times more conservative.
“What you see throughout Europe and throughout America, they are many many multiples below what the Australian Government says is acceptable,” he said.
“The Australian Government have their heads in the sand about how bad these chemicals might actually be.”
Authorities overseas, including the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have found PFOA and PFOS chemicals — a type of PFAS —
can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. Toxic land
The Department of Defence has found that the soil on Mr Lawless farm is contaminated with PFAS and Mr Aylward said more investigation must be done.
“That is absolutely a red flag, because most properties you test around the country won’t have this chemical in the soil,” he said.
“The fact that it’s there means it’s probably been there for a very long period of time, and it’s probably in many other things that haven’t been tested such as grass, trees, and chicken eggs.
“At some point they will have had it in their water, and it probably means that it is continuing to come from the base onto their property, and that in itself is unacceptable.
“If you live next to these bases and you’re creating produce then you must be wary of these chemicals.”
Mr Lawless said he was concerned his family had been eating contaminated beef, as one of his neighbours cattle were recently found to contain high PFAS levels.
“We should be offered the same tests,” he said.
Mr Lawless’ wife Sandra attended meetings last year where Government officials briefed the community on their investigation into PFAS contamination, and she said they refused to answer questions sufficiently.
“They should be doing more. It’s our livelihood and our health that it can affect,” Ms Lawless said.
Ray Shingles, a farm manager and neighbour of the Lawless’ who also attended meetings, said the bottom line was the Government had been very reluctant with information.
“This couple has been drinking their bore water for many years, the same water that their cattle consume, the same water that the cattle next door consume,” he said.
Mr Aylward said unfortunately Mr Lawless story was not an isolated case.
“You see an elevated level of these types of diseases, including cancer, around some of these bases,” he said.
“There is a very high chance that those people will have high levels of these chemicals in their blood as well. The Government really needs to be doing an Australia-wide blood test for all of the communities that are beside these defence bases.
“The Government hasn’t tipped in anywhere near enough resources to deal with the impacts off the base of any of these communities.”
Mr Lawless said the Government was reluctant to educate communities about the hazards of PFAS in an attempt to avoid compensating those who are found to have been harmed by the chemicals.
“I think that they’re hiding something, [the Government] doesn’t come and talk to you about how dangerous it could be,” he said.
“They should have done more to help me.”
He said he deserved better after working on the property his entire life without so much as a holiday.
“I am concerned for my life, I’ve got a fair bit more living to do yet, I’m not ready to go,” Mr Lawless said.
Door is open after legal wins
Mr Aylward led the class action that last week ended the the ‘in-principle’ settlement with Williamtown, Oakey, and Katherine.
“Other communities around the country can probably take some heart that the Government is looking at these issues and that there is the possibility in the future that actions will be taken for these other communities,” he said.
“They want blood testing, they want compensation for loss of property values, and for the stress that they’ve had to deal with knowing that they’ve been contaminated by these toxic chemicals.
“The Government admits that [PFAS] is the largest environmental contamination that they have ever had to deal with.”
Mr Lawless said he would join a class action if one was organised for his community.
“The Government should be held liable for what they’ve done,” he said.
Mr Shingles agrees.
“They’ve used these chemicals across the RAAF bases, and [the Department of Defence] have a responsibility to their neighbours,” he said.
A Defence spokesperson said it was committed to regularly updating affected communities throughout the investigation, remediation, and monitoring process.
It said community engagement continues to occur where detailed environmental investigations into PFAS are underway or have been completed.
“To better understand the potential risk of PFAS exposure to people, animals, and the environment at and around RAAF Base East Sale, Defence completed a Human Health Ecological Risk Assessment (HHERA) which included the testing of cattle that grazed on land leased from Defence,” the spokesperson said.
“The HHERA assessed a range of exposure scenarios including the consumption of milk, meat or offal from livestock within the investigation area.
“The HHERA found the following scenarios to be low and acceptable.”