As legal action progresses against the Australian Defence Force and its use of now-restricted firefighting foam at Bandiana, Wodonga residents are becoming increasingly concerned about the health impacts.
Shine Lawyers will allege that from the 1970s to the early 2000s, the Commonwealth failed to adequately capture and clean up aqueous film forming foam (AFFF), which contains chemicals that persist in the environment and are "potentially causative of adverse health effects".
Similar legal action has resulted in a $212.5 million settlement for residents in Katherine, Williamtown and Oakey.
The class action is on behalf of people in Wodonga who owned property within the investigation area on October 1, 2016 - when Defence first announced testing for PFAS.
After succeeding with the Katherine and Oakey class actions, Shine Lawyers is now taking class actions including Darwin, Bullsbrook, Edinburgh, Richmond, Townsville and Wagga Wagga.
It is not seeking personal injury claims, but that hasn't stopped residents asking questions about health implications.
Gloria Newton read about apparent cancer clusters in places like Williamtown, after receiving one of 4800 notices that Shine Lawyers sent at the end of July.
"I didn't know who else had gotten the letter, and then I found out Heather had got it. Then we started researching," she said.
Her neighbour, Heather Watts, remembers the fence designating Defence land used to be just up from her house on the other side of Beechworth Road, where White Box Rise is now.
The land was divested by Defence and sold in 2005.
"I used to walk over to the kangaroos, and there was a dirt road ... I used to walk up there everyday with the dog," she said.
"One particular day, I was standing up there looking down, and there was this old car in the middle of a field.
"I sat down and watched, and there was all Army running around, and they blew the car up. They had the fire truck there then.
"They say in the Bandiana investigation that it's [PFAS] at low levels, and is below what is unacceptable - well, of course they're going to say that.
"It's cumulative in humans - we grew our own veggies in the soil, and all the rest of it."
In Allambie Crescent, there has been cancer in 11 out of 17 residences.
Within a 300-metre radius, there have been a further 25 diagnoses of a wide range of cancers.
In some properties there have been two diagnoses; Bill Nicholls and his wife, who live on one side of Ms Watts, have both had cancer.
"I'd never thought about it [the high rates of cancer]," Mr Nicholls said.
"What I always worried about was the trees were always dying, for no apparent reason. I had the gas people out - I thought it might have been a gas leak.
"They said there's nothing there, it's probably something in the ground."
Mrs Newton, who has lived two doors up from Mr Nicholls since 1989, lost her husband in 2015.
"My husband was a train driver, and they said he was one of the fittest men in the railways, he never got sick," she said.
"Well all of a sudden he did - he had prostate cancer and he was gone in five months," she said.
The group in Allambie are wanting to hear from others in Wodonga who have noticed high incidence of cancer.
- Make contact: email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Investigation looking at human health overdue
All 14 surface water samples taken along Jack in the Box Creek exceeded PFAS freshwater guidelines.
Ten surface water samples from along the creek were above drinking or recreational water guidelines; the highest being 5.1 micrograms per litre, from near Jack Perry Reserve.
The family home of Nicole Beach abuts Arthur Dunstan Park and Jack in the Box Creek, and is a couple hundred metres from where groundwater was found to contain 0.232 ug/L of PFHHxS+PFOS.
Ms Beach grew up playing in the park and eating home-grown vegetables after her parents moved to Warsaw Crescent in 1972.
She has had ovarian cancer, her father died of stomach cancer in 2018, her brother is battling kidney cancer, and another sibling is getting treatment for an autoimmune disease.
"I saw something on Facebook - that's when I first became aware of it," Ms Beach said.
"I rang my mum and said 'Mum have you seen this?' ... the house was right in the middle of the map.
"The land damages didn't bother me so much, what bothered me was the fact that we had so many people who I knew in the street who had died of or have had some form of cancer."
There are 14 cases of cancer that she knows of.
The likelihood of PFAS "accumulating in the food people are either growing or catching" was the subject of a risk assessment, that Defence originally said would be released in 2019 and is yet to be published.
When Defence held community consultation in September, 2018, representatives stressed that unacceptable PFAS levels had not been found in drinking water supplies, and that it remained safe to swim in waterways.
Nonetheless, high levels of the chemical remained on the base in 2017 despite AFFF being phased out 10 to 20 years earlier.
Approximately 560 litres of AFFF were used per year at just one site where fire training was conducted at South Bandiana, where soil tested 12 times higher than open space guidelines (13.3 milligrams per kilogram, compared to 1 mg/kg).
A sample of groundwater from the current fire station contained 118 ug/L of PFAS, which was measured against recreational water (0.7ug/L) and drinking water (0.07 ug/L) guidelines and compares to the screening level for highly disturbed waterways of 2 ug/L.
Consultants made note of "a potential disposal ground" of drums at the base of Bear's Hill and patches where grass was not growing in a location where fire extinguishers were emptied.
What is PFAS? The 'forever chemicals' of concern
The federal government's position is that PFAS, which have been found in polar regions and are in all people due to their presence in household products, have not been proven to have a "large impact" on human health.
But a recent senate inquiry has recommended the government review its health advice.
Concerns about the impacts of PFAS "have particularly arisen due to their stable chemical structure and ability to move through the environment".
The European Union has recently introduced measures to regulate the production and use of PFOA due to the "unacceptable risk to human health and the environment" posed by the chemicals, the senate inquiry stated.
The National Toxics Network told the inquiry: "PFAS chemicals cannot and do not break down.
"While the focus has been primarily on PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS, these represent only three of the estimated 4730 PFAS chemicals in use today.
"Information on toxic effects and environmental fate exists for only a handful."
The United States United States Environmental Protection Agency provides the following advice to the public:
"The most consistent findings from human epidemiology studies are increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations, with more limited findings related to:
- infant birth weights,
- effects on the immune system,
- cancer (for PFOA), and
- thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS)"
While maintaining "there is no current evidence that suggests an increase in overall cancer risk", the Australian government does set guidelines for acceptable exposure.
An Australian National University study is examining the health impacts in Williamtown, Oakey and Katherine.
Communities 'have right to ask questions'
In the Williamtown red zone, Lindsay Clout is trying to learn what clean-up has been done.
"The noise over the last three or four moths has been surrounding the class action," he said.
"At the moment, my focus is that we've still got a red line around us and that needs to be dealt with.
"Once that starts shrinking, which I'm quite confident it will, I think people will feel very confident we're on the winning straight."
On raising health concerns, Mr Clout said he had been accused by many along the way of "making trouble", but Australian researchers were "moving closer and closer to establishing clear links".
"It's a really difficult road to tred, when you highlight the dangers of this problem and create angst," he said.
"Our view had always been 'let's put this on the table' .... the opposition are benefiting from the silence.
"We needed to know what the human health impacts were from exposure, and that is well underway.
"My analogy of it, is it's a bit like smoking nicotine, some people get away with it forever, and some people get issues from serving behind the bar.
"In saying that, the background levels in the country are around 15 to 17 nanograms per millilitre, so if you've got 50, 70 or 90, which are common numbers in contamination zones, you've got every right to ask 'what's going on?'"
Mr Clout, who leads the National Coalition Against PFAS, said personal injury legal action was yet to be tested in Australia.
"Our legal people didn't want to go there three or four years ago, but now the talk is it's not too far way," he said.
Wodonga residents issued notices have until September 30 to opt out of the class action, and those who think they otherwise may be eligible can call 1800 066 173.
For Ms Beach, who has supported her mother to register, the most important thing is raising awareness.
"In the end, they'll [the government] be looking at the dollars, but the dollars really don't matter," she said.
"I think of the soldiers who were in close contact with this chemical.
"No money is going to bring my Dad back, or be able to help me, but we could stop it now."
Ms Watts accepts it will take much to prove links between PFAS contamination from the Bandiana Military Area and cancer in her street.
But she also knows the testing done so far is only a snapshot of the current time, and does not account for decades of chemicals leaching off the base, that potentially resulted in drinking water being impacted.
"They'll say it's [cancer] in family history, but it certainly wasn't in our family," Ms Watts said.
"I lost my daughter Kelsey to ovarian cancer.
"When I found out there were four ovarian cancers within 40 metres of our house, I thought, 'How can that be?'
"What we used to say when something like this came up, was 'It must be in the water'."
Defence did not answer what steps had been taken to clean up PFAS on and off the Bandiana base, and whether it could be ruled out that PFAS impacted drinking water at any time during the 40 years AFFF was in use.
Read their response in full:
Defence is committed to keeping the community surrounding the Bandiana Military Area updated on the findings and progress of the PFAS environmental investigation. Defence directly engages with property owners to discuss the results of sampling and encourages community members to register for the investigation stakeholder list to receive periodic email updates.
Defence has completed a Detailed Site Investigation at Bandiana which identified limited pathways for people to be exposed to PFAS, including consumption of home-grown produce (red meat, fruit, vegetables and eggs), consumption of fish from local waterways, and recreational use of local waterways. As a precaution, Defence is undertaking a Human Health and Ecological Risk Assessment to further consider these exposure pathways and assess the level of exposure risk. Defence expects to complete the Human Health and Ecological Risk Assessment by the end of the year, however, completion dates are subject to change due to the detailed nature of the investigations and the need for comprehensive reviews. Defence's PFAS environmental investigations timelines are not impacted by class actions.
Defence is using the findings of the Investigation to develop a PFAS Management Area Plan, which will assess if measures are required to manage and reduce the risks of PFAS exposure. It will also outline the sampling program to monitor and track PFAS contamination over the coming years. The PFAS Management Area Plan is expected to be finalised in conjunction with the Human Health and Ecological Risk Assessment. When the Human Health and Ecological Risk Assessment and PFAS Management Area Plan are complete, Defence will publish the findings on the PFAS website and provide an update to the community. Details of the update will be advertised closer to the date.
The Investigation did not identify any potential exposure risks associated with drinking water sources. On 17 September 2018, North East Water issued a media release to confirm that the Wodonga drinking water supply is safe to drink. This advice is based on the results of sampling undertaken by North East Water in consultation with the Department of Health. Sampling showed no levels of concern, with PFAS detections well below the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines. North East Water conducts routine sampling for PFAS in Wodonga, and publishes these results on their website.
Defence is not a health authority and, as such, relies on guidance and advice from relevant health authorities, including Victorian government agencies. Defence has shared the results of all sampling conducted, as well as investigation reports, with these Victorian agencies, who are able to review and assess this information to determine if precautionary advice is required.
The Environmental Health Standing Committee (enHealth) has released guidance statements to help assess public health risks when PFAS have been released into the environment. In July 2019, the statements were updated to reflect the most current evidence relating to PFAS.
The Australian Government's Expert Health Panel for PFAS found that, although the scientific evidence in humans is limited, reviews and scientific research to date have provided fairly consistent reports of an association with several health effects. The health effects reported in these associations are generally small and within normal ranges for the whole population. There is also limited to no evidence of human disease or other clinically significant harm resulting from PFAS exposure at this time. Further information on the guidance statements and health can be found at: https://www1.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/ohp-pfas-expertpanel.htm.
Commencing in November 2016, the Australian Government offered a free blood test for PFAS to people who live or work, or who have lived or worked, in the Williamtown and Oakey investigation areas and who have potentially been exposed to PFAS. In March 2018, this program was extended to include the RAAF Base Tindal Investigation Area as part of a Government support package to the Katherine community. On June 30 2019, the Australian Government's PFAS Voluntary Blood Testing Program concluded. More information about this program is available at: http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/ohp-pfas-bloodtesting.htm
- courtesy Border Mail, Albury.