AN independent expert health panel investigating the health effects of PFAS chemicals has found there is “no current evidence that suggests an increase in overall cancer risk”.
However, the panel found a link to other health issues could not be ruled out.
The panel was set up last year to advise the federal government on the potential health affects associated with exposure to the chemicals and to identify priority areas for further research.
The chemicals have so far been found at elevated levels at Defence sites across Queensland, New South Wales, Western Australia and Victoria.
Concern arose about the health affects of chemicals in the Gippsland environment after the Environment Protection Authority last year advised duck hunters not to eat birds sourced from Heart Morass due to elevated levels of PFAS contamination in the meat.
Field and Game Association spokesman Gary Howard said the report backed up the association’s understanding that there was no evidence that PFAS levels found in ducks and eels at the Heart Morass were harmful to hunters.
“If we thought there was a danger we wouldn’t have gone down that path (opening the wetlands to hunting),” he said.
However, some of the submissions argued the current national guidance was “misleading”, given the known dangers of PFAS chemicals.
There have been ongoing concerns about the chemicals’ ability to remain in the environment for many years, their ability to travel long distances through soil and water, get into groundwater, and build up in animals and humans, and remain for many years in the human body.
While the panel, which released its findings on Monday, did not investigate the health effects of contaminated eating animals, it found that it was “practically possible to prevent all PFAS exposure” because of the large number of sources from which people may still get very low exposures.
It also noted that even though the evidence for PFAS exposure and links to health effects was “very weak and inconsistent”, important health effects for individuals exposed to PFAS could be ruled out based on the current evidence.
Internationally, everyone has low levels of PFAS chemicals in their blood, and in some countries people in highly exposed communities typically have PFAS concentrations up to 10 times higher than those in the general population.
Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS chemicals, were used in fire-fighting foams at 18 Defence bases across the country, including RAAF Base East Sale, and CFA training sites, including Fulham, and Esso’s Longford oil and gas plants, from 1970.
Use of the foams was phased out from 10 years ago but not before there was significant contamination of soils, groundwater and surface water around some of the bases.
They are man-made chemicals that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water and have been widely used since the 1950s in household and industrial products. While there are many types of PFAS, the most common are those referred to as perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid.
The report found there is no current evidence that supports a large impact on a person’s health as a result of high levels of PFAS exposure.
In line with the requirements outlined in its terms of reference, the panel has provided its advice to federal Health Minister Greg Hunt.
Considering all the evidence before it, the expert health panel advised Mr Hunt any health screening for exposed groups should be for research purposes only. It also recommended that any further health screening for exposed groups should be for research purposes only.
The panel received 499 submissions through the public consultation.
The panel found although the scientific evidence on the relationship between PFAS exposure and health effects was limited, current reports, reviews and scientific research provide fairly consistent reports with several health effects, such as:
• Increased levels of cholesterol in the blood;
• Increased levels of uric acid in the blood;
• Reduced kidney function;
• Alterations in some indicators of immune response;
• Altered levels of thyroid hormones and sex hormones;
• Later age for starting menstruation in girls, and earlier menopause, and
• Lower birth weight in babies.
In December, the federal government announced a $5.7 million community support package for people impacted by PFAS emanating from the RAAF Base Tindal in the Northern Territory. It also extended its voluntary blood testing program, epidemiological study and mental health and counselling services to the investigation area around the base.