‘National crisis’: Toxins detected at 300 times the safe level in Defence sites

Perth’s HMAS Stirling navy base.Toxins have been detected at more than 300 times the recommended safe levels in ground and surface water at numerous Defence sites across Australia, prompting warnings of a “national crisis” requiring intervention from the Turnbull government.

Potentially hazardous levels of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) were detected at Townsville RAAF Base, HMAS Stirling at Perth’s Garden Island and in other isolated cases, preliminary testing by the Department of Defence revealed.

The testing was conducted as part of a long-running investigation into water contamination in the proximity of several Defence sites, including the RAAF base in Williamtown, near Newcastle, and the Army Aviation Centre at Oakey, in Queensland.

The department will begin an investigation of the 12 sites next year, and will supply “alternative sources of drinking water” to any nearby residents who source their water from a bore, and to other residents in “exceptional circumstances”.

The department also urged caution, reminding concerned residents that according to the Environmental Health Standing Committee (enHealth), “there is currently no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse human health effects”.

On-site tests at the Townsville base found chemical levels in groundwater as high as 61.4 micrograms a litre, or 300 times the safe level. No off-site tests were conducted. Similar levels were reported near Perth’s Garden Island, based on historical data.

Slightly excessive levels of PFAS were also detected on isolated occasions near the RAAF base in Darwin, HMAS Cerberus on the Mornington Peninsula, HMAS Creswell in Jervis Bay and around the Albury Wodonga Military Area at Bandiana.

The screening levels used by Defence are more conservative than those used by Australian health authorities, but higher than those considered safe in the US.

The suspected carcinogens arise from the historic use of firefighting material called aqueous film-forming foam, which Defence began to phase out in 2004. The chemicals can also be found in waterproofing agents, food packaging and non-stick cookware.

Mariann Lloyd-Smith, senior adviser at the National Toxics Network, said the levels detected at Townsville were “incredibly high”. She called on Defence to return to the sites “instantaneously” and conduct off-site water monitoring.

“I’m delighted I’m not living anywhere near the Townsville base, because those levels are shocking,” she said. “At HMAS Stirling the figures are just as bad. It is now time for some independent body to be established, because you cannot have the polluter investigating their own our pollution. It is just unacceptable.”

Defence released the preliminary report online on Tuesday afternoon and did not respond to Fairfax Media’s request for an interview. In statements posted online, the department said the purpose of the tests was “to get an initial snapshot only” and subsequent investigation and consultation would inform its future actions.

Williamtown and Oakey were Australia’s first proven cases of high-level PFAS contamination. Last week, a group of more than 400 Williamtown residents launched a class action against the Defence Department, citing mental anguish and loss of property value. Oakey residents are also understood to be pursuing a class action.

Greens senator Lee Rhiannon, who sat on a related Senate committee, told Fairfax Media: “There can be no more denying that contamination associated with Defence operations is a national crisis deserving of an immediate response from the Turnbull government.”

In its online statement, the Department of Defence said it took environmental investigations “very seriously”, and acknowledged it was not a health authority, urging residents to respond with measure and caution.

“Most people living in developed nations will have levels of PFAS in their body as these compounds have also been used in common household and industrial applications,” the department said. “However, because these compounds persist in humans and the environment, enHealth recommends that human exposure is minimised as a precaution.”

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