Months after it was first requested, residents of the Top End town of Katherine affected by the use of potentially toxic firefighting foam at RAAF Base Tindal will be offered blood tests paid for by the Federal Government. The Government announced on Sunday afternoon it would offer Katherine residents a $5.7 million community support package for people affected by contamination by per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which will be released on Monday and administered by the Federal Health Department. This is in line with the support which has already been offered to affected residents in communities near RAAF Base Williamtown in NSW and the Army Aviation Centre Oakey in Queensland. The package will include voluntary blood testing for people who live and work, or who have previously lived and worked, in the RAAF Base Tindal investigation area; a health study that will examine potential causes and patterns of health effects in Katherine; and mental health and counselling services.
Services to be available in early 2018
The Government had for months resisted offering blood testing to Katherine residents, while making them available for affected people living in Williamtown and Oakey, which infuriated Katherine residents. It said the services would be available early in the new year, and would update the community as soon as arrangements are finalised. In a joint statement, Health Minister Greg Hunt, Defence Minister Marise Payne, and NT Senator Nigel Scullion said the Government was now offering the community support package following an interim human health risk assessment which “identifies potential exposure pathways to the Katherine community”.
What you need to know about PFAS
Contamination of Katherine’s water supplies is just one site emerging in a major public health issue Australia-wide. “Following consideration of the risk assessment’s findings, enough information is now known about the potential exposure pathways to provide a community support package,” the ministers said. They said PFAS had been used since the 1950s in industrial processes, in a range of common household products, and some types of firefighting foams, and its use in firefighting foams “has raised some environmental concerns in Australia as PFAS has contaminated sites where the foams have been used”. “There is no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse human health effects,” the ministers said, noting the Government had established an expert health panel to advise on any potential adverse human health impacts stemming from exposure to PFAS. “The Australian Government recognises that the uncertainty around exposure to PFAS is causing stress and anxiety in affected communities and is committed to addressing communities’ concerns,” they said. However, the United States Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has warned that at high concentrations certain PFAS have been linked to adverse health effects in laboratory animals. The EPA said this may “reflect associations between exposure to these chemicals and some health problems such as low birth weight, delayed puberty onset, elevated cholesterol levels, and reduced immunologic responses to vaccination”. In Canada, the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health in 2010 said “in a highly exposed community living near a chemical plant, PFOS and PFOA have been associated with pre-eclampsia (pregnancy-induced hypertension), birth defects (PFOA only), and increased uric acid levels a marker of heart disease. “Occupationally exposed workers may have increased risk of prostate and bladder cancer.”*
‘It’s just taken too long’
Katherine resident Anthony Bartlett said the funding announcement was a step in the right direction, but didn’t go far enough. “It’s not just a portion of the community [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][affected] down here, it’s the whole community, 11,000 people,” he said. “It’s affecting people’s businesses, it’s affecting people’s lives.”
He said he thought the Government should have acted sooner: “It’s been poorly managed and it’s just taken too long,” he said. Residents are meeting with lawyers to determine whether they may become the fourth-class action group to sue the Defence Department. “When you can get lawyers in here in zero amount of time, you’d think the Government would be able to move at least a little bit quicker than lawyers,” Mr Bartlett said. “And that’s a disappointing thing, that we’ve had to lawyer up on the ground without any real announcement from the Government, without any real ministers showing up on the ground.” Legacy issues with toxic chemicals from firefighting foam in waterways remains a national issue.
Blood testing ‘a relief’ for residents
Katherine Mayor Fay Miller said the news came as a “great relief” to residents, adding that Katherine was different from Oakey and Williamtown in that the town’s water supply was contaminated. “It’s been some time now families in that area have been taking care not using bore water, of course, not using anything contaminated with that bore water but we don’t know what their base [blood] level was before they started that, so at least we’re going to have a figure now that people can use,” Ms Miller said. She warned residents not to be alarmed when they received their results. “This is just step one, we didn’t know what we were 12 months ago, two years ago, three years ago but we will be able to track it into the future and that’s very important, especially for families with young children,” she said. Ms Miller also said it was important that the funding covered counselling and mental health services. “The emotional wellbeing of the people in that affected area [is a concern] and it’s because they were feeling they had been ignored, they were feeling they’d been [hung] out to dry,” she said. “To have that psychological counselling available, yes please, there are some families that desperately need that now and they’re going to need that going into the future. Ms Miller said blood testing was at the top of Katherine’s wish list going into a meeting with Health Minister Greg Hunt on Wednesday, and said she was now turning her focus to seeking support for an “extensive” tourism marketing campaign. Some people had called the council and the local visitors’ centre asking “‘is it safe to come to Katherine? Can we drink the water? We really want to come but we’re not sure whether it’s safe to’,” Ms Miller said. “We also need to discuss now with people in highly contaminated areas the buyback for their properties.
ABC News, 4 December 2017[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]