2020 March: Gippsland Farmer PFAS Exposure

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.

“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.