“Defence admits three-year delay in warning people about toxic foam danger”
The Defence forces are now tackling perfluorinated chemical pollution. Now no fewer than 18 Defence bases across the country. The source of which was the widespread use of firefighting foam. On some bases, the local drinking water has been contaminated.
Since at least 2000, scientific research has linked these chemicals to a range of human diseases, though the Federal Government’s formal health advice says there is “no consistent evidence” they cause specific illnesses.
Now, a Four Corners investigation has confirmed Defence misused the toxic firefighting foam for decades.
Despite explicit warnings dating back to 1987 that the product must not enter the environment, many thousands of litres of the foam were expelled onto bare earth or washed into stormwater systems.
“There’s no doubt about it, that the way we used these products in the firefighting airfields back in
the 80s and 90s was not as good as it should have been,” department deputy secretary Steve Grzeskowiak said.
Key Report Findings
- The defence admits it should have gone public about the dangers of perfluorinated chemicals three years before it did.
- The chemicals entered groundwater after being used at 18 bases around Australia.
- US authorities have warned of a “probable link” between the chemicals and cancer.
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Environmental impacts and ‘probable’ cancer link (more from the News Article)
Scientists have established that perfluorinated chemicals (commonly grouped as “per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances”, or PFAS for short) do not readily break down in the environment and accumulate in the food chain.
Elevated levels have been found in the blood of residents at Williamtown NSW and Oakey in Queensland, both defence aviation bases.
The US Environmental Protection Agency says there is “suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential” associated with the chemicals.
One major US study found a “probable link” to six diseases including two types of cancer. There are, however, widely-acknowledged uncertainties in science.
Experts have urged governments to protect communities now as the potential impact of exposure to the chemicals on human health becomes clearer.
In just the past year, Defence has spent about $10 million attempting to filter the PFAS from stormwater drains leaving the Williamtown base and entering the surrounding suburbs. But testing by Four Corners showed the PFAS chemicals were still at elevated levels three weeks ago in these stormwater canals; at Dawson’s Drain, for example, laboratory analysis showed one of the PFAS chemicals flowing from the base at 18 times the safe drinking level.
Defence has adopted what it describes as a “precautionary approach”, supplying bottled drinking water to several communities including Katherine in the Northern Territory, where the town’s aquifer has been contaminated as a result of intensive firefighting training on the nearby Tindal RAAF base.
Former Tindal firefighters have described to Four Corners the use of hundreds of litres a week of the toxic foam concentrate in normal training and testing regimes.
This training was so intensive that at Oakey, more than 900 litres of the foam concentrate was discharged every week, according to Defence documents.
Assistant Defence Minister James McGrath said in May the Government was considering compensation options including land acquisitions.
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