Health warning on PFAS

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:

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.

36 thoughts on “Health warning on PFAS”

  1. 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.

    I can see why precautionary principles are banned in trade deals because they can be easily used to provide defacto protection of domestic producers.
    However, it should be OK to use the precautionary principle if the relevant chemical is banned for internal production or imports in other products.
    Problem is that big business has too much influence on trade deals.

  2. Ms Brockovich, eh?

    Not content with inspiring a film, she uses her fame to pursue cases of hazardous pollution.

    Some sheilas just won’t stop, eh??

    Brockovich: not young, not autistic, not Scandinavian. How can she be attacked…. stand back and watch.


  3. Governments are buying and using these chemicals for laughing out loud. It’s Governments at fault here.

    Show me private companies spraying this stuff everywhere.

    Amazing, every time Government fuck up, the answer is more Government.

  4. John
    How did Monsanto force our government fire departments to spend taxpayer money on chemicals that now need taxpayer dollars to clean up and untold amounts of taxpayer dollars to compensate theses victims of government decisions ?

    Remember, we were forced to use lead based paints and asbestos by governments on taxpayer funded projects.

  5. Oh, c’mon Jumpy.

    Monsanto might have put in a competitive tender price.

    Not everything that happens is “forced”.

    (I am not “forced” to buy paint X or plasterboard Y or nails supplied by Z.)

  6. On the other hand Monsanto may have developed this amazing fire fighting foam which they sold to the government using the usual free market tools of advertising and bribery.

  7. Remember, we were forced to use lead based paints and asbestos by governments on taxpayer funded projects.

    E…Vid…Ence or your pants self combust.

  8. Or, Mr J, is it that you favour the methodology Heads I win, Tails you lose?

    To give an example:
    1. MySaint wins a tender by offering the lowest price
    2. MySaint supplies goods and services but not at the lowest price.

    1. “They forced the Govt to buy”
    2. “Taxpayer dollars were wasted by the Govt.”

    Thus you can be a winner every time.
    And somehow ‘The Govt’ always looks bad and ‘The People’ are always hard done by; at least the honest toilers amongst us.

  9. zoot

    The only true sections in any publication are the advertisements,….

    plus of course the advertorial material and the overseas-holiday-reviews-where-the-travel-writer’s-trip-was-paid-for-by-gasp!-an-airline-or-resort.

  10. To be honest, I’m surprised Jumpy’s first response wasn’t:
    “Chill out. Capitalism is inherently self correcting. All we have to do is wait and the invisible hand of the market will clean this mess up, no worries.”

  11. As far as fire-fighting foam goes, my personal view is that I would rather fire fighting services for the protection of the general public’s wellbeing and private property remain in the hands of public (government) agencies.

    Some years ago in the Latrobe Valley there was a fire in an open cut brown coal mine, the Morwell Open Cut. It was during a hot summer; the fire continued for several weeks. The very nearby town of Morwell had thick smoke and fly ash blanketing the houses and streets. Locals tried to block off the smoke from entering their homes. Some people evacuated to unaffected towns.

    The fire started when burning embers from an arsonist’s efforts reached the dry surface of the coal beds.

    As it happens, the old State Electricity Commission mine was well equipped with extensive water sprayers to keep the coal dust surface damp on hot windy days. (Apart from fire danger, it helped in reducing the amount of coal dust blowing across the town and adjacent land.)

    The story goes, that the new owners (Engie) had not maintained the fire suppression spray system adequately.

    I can’t imagine that many of the thousands of Morwell residents at the time of the fire, applauded this circumstance.

    State-run mine? Privately-owned mine?

    Here endeth the anecdote.

    Rev. Ambi

  12. Jumpy seems to be of the opinion that if a government pays someone directly it somehow disables their brain so that they become stupid and/or incompetent.

    Defence forces and fire brigades are not the government.

    Should we turn to private armies, or put the fire brigade service out to tender? We privatised the operation of prisons, refugee camps, the Commonwealth Bank, airports, airlines, electricity systems, care for the aged, childcare and more.

    Were they thereby improved in service delivery while having the extra burden of having to return a profit to owners/shareholders?

    There has been one success – Commonwealth Serum Laboratories became CSL and a world leader in blood products. But even there, TV programs showing marginalised Americans selling their blood regularly to keep a roof over their heads was hard to watch.

    The general public has never been in favour of privatisation, nor of ‘free’ trade deals, but capitalism seems to have won.

    End of rant.

  13. Jumpy: In case you missed it Australia has recently had a Royal Commission into the banking sector. The findings on the behaviour our capitalist banks was hardly flattering.
    The commission into aged care has just finished with negative findings about some of the capitalist aged care companies.
    Now we have the announcement that Woolies has joined the the ranks of capitalist companies and the ABC stealing from their employees.
    No doubt you will claim that all the negative findings were fake news but it is time you accepted that capitalism is not the answer to everything and that some capitalists

  14. I don’t understand the reason for all the tangential rantings or painting me in a certain way you don’t like and then complaining about the colours.

    Defence forces and fire brigades are not the government.

    They are most certainly part of government, as is the ABC.

    I have little problem with politicians or actual Government workers because they face some accountability. My problem is with the unelected, life long, unaccountable rule making bureaucrats that retire fat on taxpayer hard work that face zero accountability when they fuck up.

    The Fire Fighters and Soldiers didn’t decide PFAS foam was what they must use. The Tradesmen didn’t choose to use lead based paints and asbestos.

    Someone did.
    Q) Who were they and what punishment will they receive?
    A) bureaucrats and none.

  15. Jumpy, conceptually start with three branches of government – a legislature, an executive, and a judiciary – then realise that in Australia there is some fusion between the legislative and the executive branches.

    Now tell me please where the fire brigade and the army fit.

  16. Jumpy: What steps do you take to make sure that you and your workers know of the hazards associated with all the chemicals you use and take the recommended precautions to protect themselves, site owners and other people working on site? (All the companies I worked for had systems to deal with this.)
    Have you got emergency procedures that take account of what might happen with these chemicals/materials in the case of a fire, flood etc.?
    If you do this you would understand how complex and difficult it may be to set up systems and keep on top of new information?
    What help do you get from the inspectorate to ensure you are running safe workplaces and have the information you, your workers and clients need?
    Just asking. Not every contractor has a brilliant record.

  17. About 10 years ago or more I heard that there were over 20,000 chemicals used in situations where we could have contact with them, almost none tested to see whether they were safe. John D might know because he is more qualified than I in that regard.

  18. The government didn’t develop PFAS foam. The government didn’t invent lead based paint.
    Capitalism did. It’s something capitalism does really well – develop new products (albeit with no concern for their safety).

  19. Brian,

    Now tell me please where the fire brigade and the army fit.

    Government services, unfortunately too influenced by by a forth branch of unaccountable bureaucrats. The faceless .

    Make up your minds, does supply lead demand or does demand lead supply?

  20. does supply lead demand or does demand lead supply?

    Sometimes one, sometimes the other. It’s a silly binary game to be playing.

    Jumpy, I was a bureaucrat for 22 and a half years back in the time when public servants actually did stuff. Some of the stuff we did was world leading and led to the world doing stuff. Some of it was world class but got f*cked over by people who believed in small government. That is, the Goss Labor government. Lost in the sands of time.

    Most of it had a positive impact at the time. Yes, we were accountable to senior officers, to the people to whom we were providing services, and to the public. In one sector we actually started a professional association who would hold us accountable.

    Just when I was leaving, public access to information was coming in, which I saw as essentially a negative for the functionality of bureaucrats, because the public can never be aware of the public servant’s view of the world, but will judge nevertheless, and then the public servant has no defence, not having a free voice in the media, and having the media with a default bias against her or him.

    Jumpy, you are making judgements about stuff that you know diddly squat about in real terms.

  21. Here’s a timeline of events related to PFAS.
    The chemicals were discovered/invented pretty much by accident by Dupont decades before the US Navy, in partnership with 3M, used them in developing the AFFF foam. As with most things in the real world the history does not conform to a simple supply/demand mechanism as preached by Brother Jumpy.
    In passing I note that both Dupont and 3M have contaminated the ground water of their neighbours with their waste disposal methods – another example of the down side of capitalism.

  22. Brian:

    In passing I note that both Dupont and 3M have contaminated the ground water of their neighbours with their waste disposal methods – another example of the down side of capitalism.

    The desire of capitalism to put the needs of owners and shareholders first has often lead to poor outcomes for the environment, our descendants and the broader public.
    Capitalism also has a poor record for acting on newly discovered let alone long known problems with their product. Gambling, alcohol pushing, medical, flammable building cladding and asbestos are a few that leap to mind without having to think too hard.

  23. “down side of capitalism”, zoot?

    Many unfortunate families – including ‘working families’ – have unfortunately found themselves downwind or downstream or downhill from capitalist enterprises where [ahem] attention to magic exhalations upon the countryside [sic] was sadly lacking.

    And DDR = East Germany had its Trabis and smoke belching factories.

    Chinese capitalism went so far as to close down nearby pollution sources for a few weeks before the [cough, gasp] Beijing Olympics: whom exactly did they think they were fooling, when thousands of tourists visit [cough] Beijing every year [splutter]???

    Funny old world, eh?

  24. Brian,

    Jumpy, you are making judgements about stuff that you know diddly squat about in real terms.

    You are correct in that I don’t know diddly squat about being a bureaucrat but as an employer and just a regular citizen I know plenty about bureaucracy, in real terms.
    Until you try to employ people in this Country you don’t know diddly squat how hard it is from the job giver end.

    Blaming Capitalism and Free Trade on bureaucrats scribbling down dictates to Firefighters and Defence to use PFAS foam is ridiculous.

  25. Au contraire M. Jumpy,

    bureaucrats scribbling down dictates to Firefighters and Defence to use PFAS foam

    is a ridiculous assertion (as well as unbelievably naive – what are you, some kind of bumpkin?).

  26. Jumpy, bureaucrats don’t buy foam for the fire brigade or defence. They do that themselves.

    When I first joined the Ed Dept it was true that even chalk was centrally ordered and sent out by Supply and Stores. However, about 50 years ago we started giving money to the schools themselves, with more of their own admin staff.

    Jumpy, you’ve tempted me to do my skitey bit. For the most part I had I think it was 167 staff in 34 work groups, involving 13 different employment categories from the highly professional to pickers and packers and drivers. They were mostly covered by unions, of which I think there was 9 different ones. None of them gave us any trouble.

    During my quarter of a century or so, I conducted or participated in about 600 interviews. I was also involved in sacking someone, which was rare in the public service.

    I was also there when Goss’s goons came in and trashed the place, deeming most of what we were doing as superfluous and unnecessary. It would have made your heart leap with joy!

    They said they valued people, but they didn’t, so I left by choice. I didn’t actually resign, but that was a technicality, I had a choice and I left.

    I could tell some wild stories, but perhaps another time.

  27. Goss’s goons, eh?
    And lurking nearby, nice Mr Kevin??

    And here we Southerners were at that time, naive enough to welcome Mr Goss, as he lifted the oppressor boot of Joh off your Quincelander necks….

    Most things are far more complicated than at first appears…..

  28. Most things are far more complicated than at first appears…..

    My brother-in-law was a surveyor working for the government at the time. They found themselves in the park – the old botanical gardens, locked out of their offices – can’t remember the full story.

    And lurking nearby, nice Mr Kevin??

    Not so much lurking. We called him “Doctor Death” at the time.

    They thought all public servants were national Party toadies. In Education we didn’t talk about our personal politics, but I’d wager 85% voted Labor.

  29. They thought all public servants were national Party toadies.


    But even if they thought that, was it fair to sack so many (and consequently close down services)??

    “They called him Dr Death….”
    so what did Quincelanders think when he started to rise up the Federal ALP ranks?

  30. Ambi, on closing down services, our PS actually did better under Joh Bjelke that what happened in other states. It started Reagan and Thatcher, but it swept through Australian governments in the 1980s. Public services didn’t do anything anymore in providing services, except directly with the public, as in schools and hospitals. In head office public services were only to work on policy, and even that is now often outsourced to consultants by public servants who don’t know enough to know whether they are being snowed.

    In the old days we made policy, by and large from feedback from the delivery of services. We even had our own research capacity for hard and soft research on service delivery.

    Also there are a lot of things you can only afford to do at scale, and then the service was made available equally to big schools and small. Now a lot of things just fall through the cracks, but people have no memory and don’t know what they are missing.

    Our PS was ‘modernised’, ‘downsized’ and ‘right-sized’ by Goss’s goon’s, and they really didn’t know what they were doing.

    Kevin 07 would never have made it without Gillard’s support, and he talked a good talk. people really don’t care much what happened to public servants. Some of us, however, were not surprised to see him crash and burn.

    In Qld he was known to call a meeting at 6am, having worked through the night, then he would or wouldn’t follow through on what the meeting said.

    As PM he was one of several PMs who were ‘friends of the chair’ at the Copenhagen climate conference in December 2009. Kevin worked 72 hours straight and ended up being “ratf*cked’ by the Chinese. Whatever came out of the meeting was decided in a hotel room, where Obama went looking for the Chinese leader, who had withdrawn from the formal meeting and was holed up with the Indians, South Africans and I think Brazilians. Rudd and the Europeans weren’t there.

    Rudd actually burnt out right there, and his underlying chaos rose to the surface from then onwards, but the turning point was April, when he decided to put climate on the back burner rather than actually talk to the Greens. And the fact that he never read the Henry tax review, which came out that January, but nevertheless picked a fight with the miners.

    That’s the guts of it from my POV.

  31. Thanks Brian,

    That sounds like a very plausible sequence of Kev events.
    “The best guide to future behaviour is past behaviour”.

    Ministers who had served in Kevin’s cabinet spilled the beans eventually, but loyally kept quiet while PM Gillard fought her federal election. No plausible explanation for his removal at the time of the coup.

    “A good Govt that had lost its way”, she said.

    A sputtering-along-Govt sowing the seeds of its own downfall, more likely.

    Eventually, when it became clear that Kevin MHR wanted to depose PM Julia, several of his former Ministers stepped up to the microphones at long last to deliver their criticisms.

    Kevin’s Health Minister spoke out about being ignored by Kevin as he dashed from State to State (photo opp to photo opp) claiming to be developing a Fantastic Health Scheme for the Nation. Young Mr Button later published an account that chimes with yours, “A Year in My Father’s Business”, about the chaos of trying to write speeches for Kevin.

    Myriads of public servants working through weekends then finding their labours tossed aside in the spin cycle.

    My conclusion: no point in having urgent or huge policy reviews written, if they have no effect on decisions. The Henry Review of Taxation is a sad case in point.

    And it seems there were dozens of others, beyond the glare of publicity: K had a bright idea, demanded a scoping paper; the rest was silence. Judging by the sudden and huge swing against Kevin when he called a spill, most backbenchers must have been aware of the dysfunction……

    Julia Gillard wrote later that after the Copenhagen failure, K seemed to be on the verge of collapse. Kevin hit back by asking where were her postgrad qualifications in psychology??

    Sometimes it’s so obvious, Kevin, that people with everyday experience can see it, even without Psych qualifications.


    R U OK?

  32. Ambi, apparently when Rudd was away and Gillard sat in the chair to fill in, she emptied his in-tray in no time flat, and then had queues of ministers running through her door for decisions. She must have thought “How easy is this?”

    Also ran a good meeting, I believe.

    However, being the real PM was a different matter.

  33. They thought all public servants were national Party toadies.

    Hard to believe they thought that.

    In Education we didn’t talk about our personal politics, but I’d wager 85% voted Labor.

    What’d ya recon the split is now ?

    I’d go 60/35/5 on green/ ALP/other.

  34. Jumpy, my guestimate was based on the Education Department only in the 1970s and 1980s.

    I now nothing beyond that

  35. Jumpy:

    I’d go 60/35/5 on green/ ALP/other

    You are getting a bit paranoid about the Greens mate even allowing for conservatives endlessly blaming teachers for every perceived failing of the education system.

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