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Commonwealth's $132.7m Legal Settlement Will Not Resolve National PFAS Contamination Issues

A recent legal settlement of $132.7 million, will do little to deal with the ongoing issues of PFAS contamination across the country. The settlement was the result of a class action on behalf of 30,000 residents in seven communities who have had their properties and health impacted by PFAS contamination, mainly as a result of PFAS fire fighting foam being used at RAAF bases across the country. Each resident may receive just over $4,000. Less if legal costs are included. Three other communities settled for just over $200 million in a similar class action in 2020. The legal action by the Aboriginal community at Wreck Bay (situated near Jervis Bay in southern NSW) has yet to be resolved.

Fire Fighting Foam at an Australian air base: Image source ABC.

A recent Swedish study by ChemSec has revealed that the societal cost of using PFAS chemicals could be quantified at $17.5 trillion dollars annually!!! Profits generated by the 12 largest PFAS manufacturers amount to only $4 billion annually. Governments eventually pick up the tab for pollution issues and health problems of individuals impacted by the chemicals. Why are taxpayers subsidising the chemical industry for such enormous amounts?

PFAS are a class of 15,000 chemicals that have been linked to several health issues including cancer, thyroid and auto-immune issues. PFAS chemicals are everywhere - even in rain drops. There are thousands of uses of PFAS chemicals including stain repellent furniture, non-stick cookware, cosmetics, contact lenses, fast food wrappers, dental floss, fluorinated containers, ski wax and Gortex wet weather gear, to name but a few.

Most of Friends of the Earth's attention regarding PFAS has been establishing the national PFAS map and investigating PFAS contamination in drinking water and the waste water industry. The PFAS map has located hundreds of contaminated sites across Australia with literally thousands more yet to be identified. The water industry is currently facing a major headache with what to do with hundreds of thousands of tonnes of PFAS contaminated biosolids

Another unreported concern with PFAS is fluorinated containers, used to store a variety of liquids. These containers can leach PFAS into the liquids inside them - including health care products.

Recent information is also emerging that a number of pesticides also contain PFAS. The Federal pesticide regulator, the APVMA (Australian Pesticides Veterinary Medicines Authority) remains mute about the issue.

Construction sites across the country have also been impacted by the PFAS scourge. Most notably problems have been associated with the West Gate tunnel project in Melbourne where PFAS was detected in soil and the Victorian Government made hasty plans to try and remove and dump the soil near suburbs in outer western Melbourne.

Many water supplies across the country have also been impacted. The most serious have been in groundwater bores close to air bases and fire stations, however reticulated water supplies have also been impacted. The most serious incidents (above or near drinking water guidelines) include:  Katherine (NT), Macknade (Qld), Ayr (Qld), Esperance (WA), Wangaratta (Vic), Seaspray (Vic), Lucinda (Qld), Prosperpine (Qld), Dungeness (Qld), Bullsbrook (WA) and Svensson Heights (Qld).

The current drinking water guidelines for PFAS chemicals in Australia are 70 parts per trillion for PFOS+PFHxS and 560 parts per trillion for PFOA. Recent discussions in the United States have recommended lowering the drinking water guidelines to 4 parts per trillion for both PFOS and PFOA. The proposed US guidelines will therefore be 17.5 and 140 times lower than Australian guidelines. This would mean that potentially hundreds of water supplies across Australia would be higher than the newly proposed US guidelines.

In the early 1960's the modern day environment movement began with the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. The book had a profound impact across the planet regarding the dangerous bio-accumulative impacts of organochlorine pesticides such as DDT. A result of the book was that Government's had to start to seriously address the consequences of toxic pollution in all of its forms - which they did for a short time. PFAS chemicals were being manufactured at that time, however it wouldn't until 40 years later that the science (outside of industry) started catching up with what the chemical companies already knew.

We are all the victims of the chemical industry. The issues are complex and can be tricky to navigate. What we need is a people's movement to call the chemical industry to account and to stop taxpayers having to clean up what the chemical companies have created. The chemical companies need to be forced to pay for the clean ups and associated health care costs and to be brought under scrutiny for the toxic products that they continue to profit from. Without public pressure Government's will remain patsies of the chemical industry for decades to come.

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