Williamtown water contamination highlights dangers of PFOS and PFOA

by Charis Chang, originally posted on April 1, 2016


THE morning Rhianna Gorfine found out the food and water on her NSW farm had potentially been contaminated for years, her day began like any other.

Ms Gorfine and her husband Cain were hustling to get their children ready for school when the email came through. A friend had sent through a link to a local newspaper story saying “you should read this and let people know”.

“I remember thinking, this is unbelievable, this is crazy,” Ms Gorfine told news.com.au.

“I had to get Cain off the couch to stop him reading it, saying ‘we’ve got to get the kids to school’”.

The article that disrupted their routine that morning was every parent’s worst nightmare.

It informed them that toxic chemicals used in firefighting foam had leaked from the nearby Williamtown RAAF Base, and been found in some water and fish around their semirural area, 15km north of Newcastle in NSW.

Residents were told not to drink bore water or to eat any fish or eggs produced in the area. All forms of fishing in Fullerton Cove, including for prawns and fish, has been banned for months as testing continues.

Some Australians may be shocked that this could be happening in a country known for its clean environment. But the residents around the base are not the only ones battling the impacts of these toxic chemicals. In fact the chemicals involved have been used in many everyday products.

The Department of Defence is investigating another 15 sites for contamination, and chemicals have already been detected in other areas of Queensland and Victoria.

Two of the chemicals found in Williamtown water have been linked to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and medically diagnosed high cholesterol in humans.

The same chemicals can also be used in common household items including non-stick frying pans, camping and weatherproof gear.

So should the public be concerned about these chemicals? Here’s what you need to know.



You’ve probably never heard of PFOS or PFOA but if you have ever used a non-stick frying pan, gone camping, worn a waterproof jacket or lived close to an army base or training ground for firefighters, you may have been exposed to them.

In fact both these chemicals have been found in the blood, urine and breast milk of Australians.

Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) are man-made compounds that have been used in a range of industrial, commercial and domestic products for decades.

In particular they have been used to make firefighting foams in Australia for nearly 50 years because they are so good at putting out liquid fuel fires. They are still regarded as the most effective way to fight fires where lives are at risk, as could occur in an air crash.

The problem is that the chemicals can’t be broken down easily (if at all) but they can easily move from soil to groundwater and can be transported long distances via air and water.

Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith is part of the working group that reviews substances for the United Nation’s Stockholm Convention, aimed at controlling some of the world’s most dangerous chemicals.

She told news.com.au that PFOS and PFOA had been nicknamed “poisons without passports” for their ability to spread throughout the world.

“We already have PFOS contamination throughout the globe now,” she said. “Indonesia or China may use it and Australia may end up with the contamination, or vice versa.”

A study published in 2011 found the chemicals were in drinking water samples collected from 34 locations including capital cities and regional centres in Australia.

Adding to the problem is the fact that the chemicals don’t break down.

“What we use today will be with us for all time, that’s the horrendous thing,” Dr Lloyd-Smith said. “They never degrade or go away, it’s a bit of a nightmare.”

They also remain in the human body for three to five years, mainly in the blood, kidneys and liver.



While the Defence Department claims there are no globally accepted studies showing exposure harms human health, the dangers of these chemicals are being recognised overseas.

Last year an Ohio woman was awarded $1.6 million in compensation after a jury ruled that PFOA contributed to her kidney cancer after a Dupont plant contaminated local drinking water.

As part of the lawsuit, the C8 Science Panel concluded that PFOA could cause kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and medically diagnosed high cholesterol in humans.

Dupont is now facing law suits from an extra 3500 residents near its plant in West Virginia.

In Europe, PFOA is classified as a reproductive toxin and is required to be labelled “may damage the unborn child”.

While the Stockholm Convention has already listed PFOS as a chemical that should not be used, it is still investigating its sister chemical PFOA.

Dr Lloyd-Smith believes PFOA will probably be listed by 2020. It has already passed the first step, with the convention’s review committee acknowledging evidence that it can cause kidney and testicular cancer, disruption of thyroid function and endocrine disruption in women.

Meanwhile the Science Advisory Board of the United States Environmental Protection Agency has assessed both chemicals as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans”.

Head of the Defence Estate and Infrastructure Group, Steve Grzeskowiak, has said previously that Defence no longer uses the firefighting foam, following international research which found it contained chemicals which could persist in the environment for decades.

Mr Grzeskowiak said he understood there were no globally accepted studies showing exposure to PFOS and PFOA harmed human health, and studies of US workers exposed to high levels showed no chronic health effects.

“That said, Defence is committed to undertaking ecological and human health risk assessments to

understand current exposure scenarios and associated risks,” he said.

But Dr Lloyd-Smith disagrees.

“There is always an argument from the Department of Defence that there is no scientific evidence that PFOS and PFOA has health effects, but that is a blatant lie as there are numerous published health studies showing serious harm,” she said.



While hardly any countries still make PFOS for use in firefighting foams, the foams are still available in Australia as there has never been a recall or ban.

In a report she is preparing for the convention, Dr Lloyd-Smith notes that there are estimates of a stockpile of 7.6 tonnes of firefighting foam containing PFOS in Australia.

The foams are designated for emergency use only but Dr Lloyd-Smith says there is evidence some fire authorities are still using them.


Its sister compound PFOA is most well known for being used in the manufacture of Teflon, used in non-stick frying pans. Dr Lloyd-Smith said there was half a dozen manufacturers in China that were still making products using PFOA, including in products like non-stick cookware.

“These are making their way into Europe and Australia,” she said. “That’s why we need a UN convention as no country alone can deal with it.”



The potential dangers of PFOS and PFOA have been suspected for years.

The major manufacturer of PFOS, the company 3M, agreed to stop production of its firefighting foam in 2002 because of pressure from the US Environmental Protection Agency, over emerging scientific evidence about its health and environmental effects.

But civilian and military authorities, including the Australian Defence Force, used the foam from the 1970s to the mid-2000s.

In fact the Australian Department of Defence was told 12 years ago (in 2003) that the fire fighting foam they were using contained chemicals that could cause cancer.

But Australia has been slow to act compared with other countries.

Canada stopped the manufacture, use, sale, offer for sale and import of PFOS and related substances back in 2006. The European Union has restricted their marketing and use, and the US has severely restricted their use to occasions where no safer alternative is available.

“We are sold the line that we have the best regulatory system in the world but unfortunately that’s not truth,” Dr Lloyd-Smith said.

The United Nation’s Stockholm Convention formally listed PFOS in 2010, which means most countries automatically ban the chemical or phase it out. Technically the listing still allows for the chemical to be used for firefighting purposes but very few countries do this.

More than five years later, Australia has not ratified the PFOS listing, even though it has ratified the convention, and says it no longer uses the foam.

While Australia has never manufactured PFOS or PFOA, it has also never banned the chemicals, or recalled the foam, like it did when the pesticide DDT was listed.

When asked why Australia had not ratified 2010 amendment, a Department of Environment spokesman said the Commonwealth had been undertaking “significant technical, scientific and regulatory analysis on PFOS”.

“(This includes) exploring restrictions and management options in consultation with state and territory governments.”

He said an early assessment Regulation Impact Statement on ratification would be released soon for public consultation, addressing restrictions and management options.

When asked why PFOS products including the foam had never been recalled, he said the department did not regulate the use of firefighting foams.

“Decisions on the nature and use of the fighting foams are for Commonwealth, State and Territory agencies with fire fighting responsibilities,” he said.

“The use of PFOS in fire fighting foams continues to be an acceptable use under the Stockholm Convention.

“Any future regulatory measures to restrict PFOS containing fire fighting foams would be a matter for the Australian Government.”

Dr Lloyd-Smith said the aim of the convention was to stop the international trade of the chemical. “Once it’s on the convention, not only are you not supposed to use it, you can’t manufacture it or import it,” she said.

Australia’s industrial chemical regulator, the National Industrial Chemical Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS), has sent out alerts and recommendations to industry advising them not to use foam containing PFOS, but old stocks are still out in the community.

“We should be getting out of the global trade but … I guess Australia will be the dumping ground for a while,” Dr Lloyd-Smith said.



Dr Lloyd-Smith says that concentrations of PFOS and PFOA in Australians were similar or higher than in people overseas, according to monitoring results from 2010/11.

“Concentrations in Australian women of child-bearing age are almost twice that found in pregnant women from Germany,” she said. Compared to adults in the US, concentrations can be twice as high.

The good news is that these concentrations have been decreasing in adults, and this is most likely due to the decline in global use of the chemicals since 2002.

But traces of the chemicals have been found in water samples around Australia.

A study published in 2011 by University of Queensland’s Jack Thompson found the chemicals were present in drinking water samples collected from 34 locations including capital cities and regional centres.

Of the samples collected, 49 per cent had traces of PFOS and 44 per cent had PFOA.

Areas where the chemicals were the highest included the Sydney suburbs of Blacktown, Quakers Hill and North Richmond. Samples from regional NSW towns of Gundagai and Yass also had relatively high concentrations.

These concentrations were well below the provisionary guidelines suggested by the US EPA, as well as those set by the German Drinking Water Commission and other international authorities.

But Dr Lloyd-Smith said while there is a recommended level of exposure for these chemicals, recent research suggested that PFOS concentrations may already be causing adverse health impacts, which indicates the values may be too high.

“As PFOS and PFOA do not break down, are passed from one generation to the next via breast milk and in utero, and have in some cases demonstrated changes in gene expression at very low levels, it is possible that like lead and mercury, there may be no safe level of exposure.”



The Department of Defence has known since 2012 that surface water leaving the RAAF Base Williamtown had elevated levels of both PFOS and PFOA but did not tell the public.

When the community was finally told, the news didn’t come from Defence, but via a media release from the NSW EPA.

Defence had quietly told the NSW EPA about the issue three years ago but did not tell other stakeholders including Hunter Water, council, media and the community.

In the first report from the Senate inquiry into the contamination of defence force facilities, it suggests the community should have been told earlier.

“The lack of timely notification has also prevented members of the affected communities from taking precautionary measures against drinking water or consuming products with potentially harmful levels of PFOS/PFOA,” the report states.

The inquiry has made a number of recommendations including that the government should voluntarily acquire contaminated land, pay for annual blood testing of residents and develop a compensation package for fisherman affected by the closures of Fullerton Cove and Tilligerry Creek.

The report was published on February 4 but almost two months have passed without any response from Defence.

“It’s been nearly eight months since the declaration of the red zone when the fishing ban was imposed, and we were told we couldn’t eat eggs, vegetables or drink water,” Mr Gorfine told news.com.au.

“Now we have seen a Senate inquiry deliver strong recommendations but there’s been no meaningful response from the Department of Defence.”

A Department of Defence spokesman said a response would be tabled once the government has carefully considered each of the report’s recommendations.

“Defence is engaging with other Commonwealth agencies and is providing advice to the Minister for Defence on this matter.”

The community are so sick of waiting they have decided to launch a class action.

“This was known to different bodies for two and a half years (before residents were told) and we were extremely angry and concerned that residents had been put in that position,” Ms Gorfine said.

Those still living in the area have had their lives turned upside down. Local fisherman who have been banned from using Fullerton Cove have lost their livelihoods, perhaps forever. Others have seen their property values plummet and fear for their future health.

“It’s been extremely stressful, people are suicidal, fishers have been without an income for eight months,” Mr Gorfine said.

While the Gorfines were lucky to be connected to town water, which was not impacted, the family used bore water for their vegetable garden as well as to water the horses and chickens on their seven-acre farm. The Gorfines and their three children aged one, four and nine years old, have been eating this potentially contaminated produce for years.



Dr Lloyd-Smith believes urgent action is needed to ensure Australians are protected from ongoing exposure to perfluorinated compounds such as PFOS and PFOA.

She has called for the Australian government to immediately ratify and take action on the convention’s 2010 listing of PFOS and other chemicals. This would include recalling firefighting foams containing PFOS and PFOA, as well as banning them.

She also believes contaminated sites should be cleaned up and the health of firefighters and other workers monitored.

PFOS has already been linked to unusually high rates of skin, testicular and brain cancer at the Country Fire Authority’s Fiskville training base in Victoria.

Testing of Queensland firefighters found they had six to 10 times the amount of PFOS in their serum as others in the general population, according to a 2014 study. Blood tests of Oakey residents also found very high levels of the chemical, up to more than 40 times the national average. These residents have also started a class action.

It’s believed 15 RAAF and other military sites across Australia could have been contaminated. These include Western Australia’s RAAF Base Pearce, Victoria’s RAAF Base East Sale and HMAS Albatross in NSW.

Defence is investigating how it can clean up contamination on some of its bases from decades of using the potentially toxic firefighting foam.

But it says worldwide research has identified few effective or viable large-scale remediation techniques.

Dr Lloyd-Smith also wants an urgent review of the chemicals that have replaced the PFOA/PFOS based firefighting foams, because some of them have the same toxic characteristics.

“It’s really worrying because we could simply be repeating past mistakes,” she said.

“Many people have the idea that they wouldn’t sell it if it wasn’t safe, it’s a sweet but naive attitude.

“In Australia there are 38,000 listings on the index of chemical substances but only 3000 have been assessed for toxicity.”

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