Earlier this month, the potentially cancer-causing chemical, PFOS, was found in water streams near Sydney airport, and in several other places around Australia.
The findings increase the list of PFOS contaminated areas that have been found around the country. These include Williamtown and Fiskville, where findings of the chemical have lowered house prices and caused concerns over the health of nearby residents.
Late last year the NSW Environment Protection Authority issued an urgent public health warning telling Williamtown locals not to drink their bore water or eat fish or oysters from local waterways, or locally produced eggs and vegetables.
Nearly 700 Williamtown properties have been found to be contaminated and local fishing businesses have closed, while residents are presenting with alarming rates of PFOS and PFOA in their blood.
A great number of the contamination sites around the country are being linked to firefighting drills that were carried out about 30 years ago at military and Airforce bases around Australia. A total of 18 military and Airforce bases are now under investigation around the country to determine their levels of contamination, including RAAF Williamtown, NSW.
PFOA, 3M and Du Pont
3M (then Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company) began producing PFOA by electrochemical fluorination in 1947. In 1951, DuPont purchased PFOA from 3M for use in the manufacturing of specific fluoropolymers — commercially branded as Teflon. DuPont internally referred to the material as C8, due to its 8 carbon backbone.
Ferfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) were manufactured commercially from the 1940s and two groups of PFCs, perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOA) were also used particularly in firefighting foam.
The desirable quality of PFOA, its ability to resist water, is also its greatest danger. Its chemical structure is able to cut through the ground into the groundwater, meaning it spreads easily. Its properties also mean the chemical tends to float to the surface of the water and so it can often travel large distances. These properties mean the chemical has spread to every continent in the world.
The impact of PFOS, PFOA (C8)
In America alone, it is thought that PFOA is traceable in the blood of 99.8% of its residents. It’s use has had a long history of controversy, starting back in the 1960’s, when American manufacturer, Du Pont, began to question the impact of PFOA on the health of its employees.
The scandal, which also involved Du Pont illegally dumping C8 directly into US waterways, has been referred to as ‘the tobacco of the chemical world’, due to the widespread alleged corporate cover up by Du Pont.
As a result of a class-action lawsuit and community settlement with DuPont, three epidemiologists conducted studies on the population surrounding a chemical plant that was exposed to PFOA at levels greater than in the general population. The studies concluded that there was probably an association between PFOA exposure and six health outcomes: kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol), and pregnancy-induced hypertension.
Decades have passed since investigations began into the carcinogenic nature of PFOS and PFOA. The secrecy around the effects of the chemicals and the controversial aftermath for Du Pont has all the same hallmarks now being faced by the residents of affected areas in Australia.
In an interview with the Brisbane Courier Mail, Australian National Toxics Network senior adviser Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith said PFOS and PFOA are environmentally persistent, making them a serious threat to communities.
“The use of these firefighting foams has led to extensive contamination of groundwater and soil with PFOS and PFOA affecting rural and regional communities across Australia,” Lloyd-Smith says.
“The real issue is that these chemicals don’t break down, they never disappear and have no natural way to leave the environment.
“It will be an issue that will haunt the Australian public and the Australian Government for many years to come”.