Unless you were living under a rock you would know that Erin Brockovich was here in Oz earlier this week announcing a Landmark class action over PFAS contamination in Australia.
PFAS has notoriously been used by the defence institutions in firefighting foam across the country. The chemicals have leaked into the surrounding environment. Now Shine lawyers are about to file a class action on behalf of up to 40,000 people who live and work on land contaminated by PFAS, suing the Australian Government, arguing their property values have plummeted.
The focus is on eight defence bases in particular, but there are plenty of hotspots around, as this map shows:
As it happens, on the weekend I read an article in the New Scientist Takeaway food packaging may be source of synthetic chemicals in blood which in the dead tree version carried the more accurate title Eating out can bring a side serving of suspect chemicals, also fingering PFAS.
I’ll deal with that first, then get back to the class action.
American researchers analysed serum PFAS and dietary recall data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 2003–2014. They investigated serum levels on five PFAS compounds to probe relationships between those compounds and the consumption of fast food, restaurant food, food eaten at home, and microwave popcorn (original article here). Seems the lead researcher was the second author, Laurel Schaider of the Silent Spring Institute in Massachusetts.
The NS article says:
- PFAS, short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a widely used group of chemicals that are resistant to heat and don’t easily degrade. Because of this, they are used in non-stick cookware, stain-resistant or water-resistant fabrics, and firefighting foams.
They are now also found in soils, waterways and animals, and studies of US adults and children have found these synthetic chemicals in the bloodstreams of 97 to 100 per cent of the population.
The short story is that people who ate food prepared at home had the least PFAS in their blood. People who ate popcorn had significant amounts of PFAS. Eating food from take-aways and restaurants was associated with elevated PFAS but not to a significant degree.
That’s where the real problem begins, because the chemical is very persistent and no longitudinal studies have been done to tease out the longer term effects. No-one has a scientifically accurate idea of what “significant” means. The NS article says:
There is some evidence to suggest that PFAS exposure may cause cancer and weight gain, and affect fertility, child development and the immune system.
“Although the science on health effects is still evolving, scientists are increasingly concerned about low-dose exposures, as they continue to find health effects at lower and lower levels,” says Schaider.
However Brokovich asserts:
“The science is in on these chemicals. It can cause cancer,” Ms Brockovich tells Law Report.
She names “testicular cancer, kidney cancer, thyroid disease, thyroid cancer” as some of those that have been associated with PFAS — a link confirmed by countries including Germany, Britain and the US, but denied by Australia.
The Law Report episode is worth a listen.
The relevant Australian authorities say there is no proven evidence of harmful effects, but the ingestion of the chemicals should be minimised. Setting a standard under these circumstances is difficult. Here I found the Final health based guidance values for PFAS site investigations in Australia from April 2017. They say they take into account animal studies, and a safety margin. Then they recommend a ‘tolerable daily intake’ the same as the US for PFOS, but eight time the US levels for PFOA.
Ian Musgrave, Senior lecturer in Pharmacology at the University of Adelaide, tells us We should be cautious, but not concerned: there’s little evidence PFAS exposure harms our health. By contrast, Laurel Schaider, now Visiting Scientist, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University, says much of the US drinking water supply is contaminated and the chemicals should be banned.
The ABC’s article What is being done about the risk of PFAS contamination? is sobering. For example it refers to:
the findings from an expert health panel set up to advise the Australian Government on the scientific evidence about potential health impacts from PFAS exposure, released in 2018.
It reviewed 20 recently published local and international reports and found “fairly consistent reports with several health effects” including:
Increased levels of cholesterol
Increased levels of uric acid in the blood
Reduced kidney function
Alterations in some indicators of immune response
Altered levels of thyroid hormones and sex hormones
Later age for starting menstruation and early menopause
Lower birth rate of babies
But the panel concluded there was no current evidence that suggests an increase in overall cancer risk to PFAS exposure and that “the level of health effect reported in people with the highest exposure is generally still within the normal ranges for the whole population”.
A problem here is that no-one knows whether the “normal ranges for the whole population” are acceptable. The inquiry was Inquiry into the management of PFAS contamination in and around Defence bases.
This ABC link identifies over 60 hot spots in Queensland, including fire stations and town water supplies. A university campus and a residential development are being built on two of the contaminated sites.
Because of these concerns a study has been commissioned by the Federal Department of Health, currently underway by the Australian National University (ANU).
This image from an official factsheet shows how widely PFAS penetrates our lives:
Here are some links:
Department of Health – Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)
Meanwhile people living around defence sites are being told, don’t drink the water, don’t eat meat from domestic animals raised in the area (but you can still sell them to market) don’t eat eggs from chooks, and limit the consumption of any fish caught in the area, and you will be fine, notwithstanding blood counts of PFAS higher than the norm. However, people are reporting that if they want to sell out and move, their property is essentially worthless. Which is where the lawyers come in.
I’ll just mention that in most modern trade deals the precautionary principle is reversed. A corporation is permitted to sell goods suspected of causing harm in another country unless harm is scientifically demonstrated. This right trumps any precautionary laws the importing country might have. If ‘investor-state dispute settlement’ clauses are invoked, the government of the importing country may have to pay the company profits foregone if they want to protect their people and/or environment.
If anyone has further information, please share.