Issues surrounding contamination by potentially harmful PFAS substances around major Defence bases have resurfaced following the release of a report by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.
PFAS chemicals (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl) do not break down and accumulate in animals and humans. Whilst long-term impacts remain unclear, the chemicals are known to damage endocrine and reproductive systems.
The report recommends the appointment of a coordinator to arrange the Commonwealth’s response alongside a long-term testing program to determine possible health implications on local populations. It also recommends compensation for people suffering financial loss resulting from PFAS contamination.
Despite direct warnings to Australia by the US Environmental Protection Agency in 2000, Defence used stocks of firefighting foam containing the chemicals until at least 2011. Research has found high blood serum levels in communities around Defence bases in Oakey, Williamtown, and Katherine.
Defence has warned residents around Williamtown air base to reduce their intake of local eggs and meat.
An internal investigation by Defence into the extent of contamination has covered 1150 square kilometres at a cost of over $130 million.
Documents obtained by the ABC under Freedom of Information laws have found that aviation firefighters have up to 20 times the normal level of PFAS in their blood. The testing was conducted by Airservices Australia, which used chemicals containing PFAS at national airports until 2010.
In a statement acknowledging the report’s release, Assistant Minister for Defence David Fawcett played down the health implications.
“While there is still no consistent evidence of human health impacts, the Government acknowledges that communities in areas where PFAS contamination has been detected are very concerned about how this may affect them.”
“Their wellbeing is our focus and we will continue to work closely with them to provide advice and assistance as quickly as possible.”