THE TURNBULL government will not be buying out owners of contaminated properties around the Williamtown RAAF base, despite an expert health panel finding “consistent” evidence tying the contaminants to a string of adverse health effects, including disruption of the immune system.
The shock revelation came as a footnote after the federal government's taskforce on the per and poly-fluoroalkyl [PFAS] chemicals announced a $73 million package to tackle the contamination and provide clean drinking water to affected communities.
It also emerged within hours of the release of a report by the government's expert health panel, which found there was no evidence the chemicals had a "large impact" on human health.
Williamtown residents were reeling on Monday night. Williamtown and Surrounds Residents’ Action Group president Cain Gorfine branded the federal government “heartless” for allowing Defence to destroy the residents’ properties and walk away.
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“They really are just a bunch of bureaucrats concerned only with limiting liability and hoping that we are gullible enough to believe their spin,” he said.
The expert panel’s report found "fairly consistent” evidence linking the chemicals to a slew of human health effects, including impaired immune and kidney function, altered thyroid and hormone levels, increased cholesterol and uric acid, early menopause, late onset of menstruation and low birth weight in babies.
But the level of health effect for highly exposed individuals was “generally still within the normal ranges”, the report found, and there was no evidence they developed disease as a result.
While the evidence for increased cancer risk was “weak and inconsistent”, the panel conceded that “some degree of important health effects for individuals exposed to PFAS cannot be ruled out”.
In 2016, the US EPA concluded the chemicals were hazardous to human health and, last year, its National Toxicology Program found they were “presumed to be an immune hazard”.
When a Newcastle Herald investigation identified 50 cases of cancer on Cabbage Tree Road in Williamtown, a Harvard University professor agreed that immune suppression could be one way PFAS-exposed populations would develop elevated rates of cancer.
What is most appalling is that once again, communities around Australia have been left with no answers
Member for Paterson Meryl Swanson said the ability of the chemicals to interfere with the immune system demanded closer attention.
“We need to draw on the expertise of immunologists and oncologists to see what relationship exists between immune dysfunction and cancer,” she said, questioning the expert panel’s “contradictory” findings and why the six health conditions linked with PFAS exposure were not of concern.
Ms Swanson was dubious about the release of the panel’s 400-page report on the eve of the federal budget, two months after it was due to be handed to Health Minister Greg Hunt.
She was also scathing about the panel’s recommendation that there should not be any specific health and disease screening or other health interventions for highly exposed groups, except for research purposes.
“Does that mean they refuse to give my constituents in Williamtown, Salt Ash and Fullerton Cove choices or further support?” she said.
The PFAS taskforce welcomed the expert panel’s advice, saying it showed the approach taken to date by the government was consistent with the available evidence.
“Based on the knowledge and evidence available at this time, the Australian government is not considering a land purchase program as a result of PFAS contamination,” it said.
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“Relevant departments will continue current PFAS investigation, management and remediation programs and … management practices and adjust them as necessary to respond to any new evidence.”
It also committed $55.2 million over five years to fund clean drinking water programs at four RAAF bases, including Williamtown, with a further $17.9 million for the Department of Environment to respond to PFAS contamination issues.
A spokesperson for the Williamtown class action steering committee blasted the announcement as a “complete abdication of responsibility from the government” and labelled its timing “curious”.
“They have a clear conflict here as the defendant in one of the largest environmental class actions in Australia,” he said.
“What is most appalling is that once again, communities around Australia have been left with no answers.
“As has been pointed out by the Royal College of Physicians, there is now a mass of contradictory advice. People have been told to drink bottled water, to not eat food off their land, but there's nothing to worry about.”
In March, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians was scathing of the federal government's health advice that there was “no consistent evidence” of health effects from PFAS.
The organisation, which represents over 25,000 medical specialists, said the advice was confusing for the public and did not take into account the international evidence.
A Brisbane-based specialist in environmental medicine, Dr Andrew Jeremijenko, said the panel’s findings made it clear the current advice on PFAS was “wrong” because it did not reflect the “consistent evidence of health effects”.
He called on Australia to join the 171 countries that have signed a UN agreement to ban PFOS, considered to be the most toxic of the chemicals.
Doctor Mariann Lloyd-Smith, from the National Toxics Network, said the report took her back three decades to the early research on polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB).
“I saw the same insecurities about making statements about cancer and human health impacts,” she said.
“Now there isn't a single scientist in the world who would try to say it isn't related to cancer.
“I feel we will be in the same position in 30 years [with PFAS]. I just feel for the firemen and the residents who have to live with this.”
The expert panel flagged cancer, risks for children and firefighters as priority areas for further research.
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