PFAS in perspective

LOCAL farmers have reacted with concern over a front page article in The Age on Saturday, detailing how farmers near Esso’s Longford gas plant and RAAF Base, East Sale, have been warned not to eat meat, offal or dairy from their own livestock because of contamination by potentially toxic chemicals.

The article also pointed out that there were no restrictions on farmers selling their stock for human consumption.

Gippsland has more confirmed sites than elsewhere in the state where PFAS chemicals historically used in firefighting foam have been found, however, the contaminated sites affect only a small fraction of Gippsland’s farmland.

Respected dairy farmer and Landcare pioneer, Alex Arbuthnot, said while it was important to undertake a full investigation and evaluate potential risks at all PFAS-contaminated sites, it would be alarmist and an “overreaction” to suggest PFAS contamination was widespread in Gippsland livestock and not just limited to isolated pockets.

Mr Arbuthnot said he believed the advice from the state’s chief veterinary officer not to eat meat, offal or dairy from animals near Esso’s Longford gas plant and the East Sale RAAF Base was “precautionary”, and that people should not jump to the conclusion it was a sign that there was a major risk to human health. He also believed the news would not affect the Gippsland agricultural region’s “clean and green” image.

“When all this news broke out some months ago, I met with the EPA’s chairperson and I am satisfied that the levels of PFAS still meets standards, and we should just take the advice they and the health authorities give us until further notice,” he said.

Last year, the EPA advised against eating ducks and fish caught at Heart Morass, near the East Sale base, after elevated levels were detected in some animals.

Mr Arbuthnot said it was important to place the contamination in perspective, as the areas where PFAS had been detected were marginal farming areas where there was relatively few livestock.

“The same anti-publicity came out about the fracking, and I believe this is a similar overreaction,” he said.

PFAS has spread beyond the boundaries of the RAAF base and Esso’s Longford Gas Plants site, and has been detected on nearby properties, as well as popular nearby hunting and fishing spots. It has been measured in levels above Australian government guidelines in some groundwater, surface water, soils and sediment near the Esso and RAAF sites, including at adjacent properties, in water sources that could be used for livestock.

Another Wellington Shire farmer received a letter from legal firm Slater and Gordon, offering advice.

The letter, seen by the Gippsland Times, stated that farmers in the affected areas may have a range of claims, “including in negligence, nuisance and under the Water Act”.

The Age reported elevated levels of PFAS — perand poly-fluoroalkyl chemicals historically used in firefighting foam — had been detected in 45 cattle and 45 sheep on three properties near Esso Longford, according to Victoria’s chief veterinary officer Dr Charles Milne.

However, an Esso spokesman was quoted on ABC Radio as saying it was “very unlikely” that there is a risk of harm to a person from eating the livestock, based on the levels of PFAS measured in the livestock.

Another cattle herd near the RAAF base was also tested recently for PFAS but the results were not yet in, Dr Milne told The Age.

He said Agriculture Victoria’s testing in Gippsland had concentrated on areas surrounding the East Sale RAAF base and Longford plants.

“We’re aware of four properties in Gippsland where cattle and sheep have been blood tested,” Dr Milne said.

“Three of those are cattle and sheep grazed in the vicinity of the Esso Longford plant.

“On those three farms a total of 45 cattle and 45 sheep have been tested.

“In those animals, measurable levels of PFAs were detected in the serum.

“We’re also aware of another herd of cattle, a fourth, just cattle, that have been blood sampled for PFAS.

“But we’re not aware of the results.

“The Department of Defence is leading that investigation.”

Agriculture Victoria had bought some of the PFAS-affected livestock in Gippsland to conduct its own longitudinal study on them, Dr Milne said, as there was little research in Australia or internationally about how long the chemicals lingered in cattle, sheep and pigs.

Its initial tests on sheep showed PFAS levels dropped significantly within several weeks of them being moved to clear pasture, he said.

He suspected that would take longer in cattle and pigs.

Esso has fenced off some seven dams on properties near its Longford plant to stop livestock from drinking PFAS-contaminated water.

Current government guidelines do not specify acceptable levels of PFAS for irrigation or livestock watering.

Such is the concern among nearby residents and farmers that some are considering a class action and have made plans to meet in the next few weeks to decide how to proceed.

Many are, however, reluctant to speak publicly because of the effect that PFAS contamination could have on their livelihoods.

The potential risks to humans of consuming livestock exposed to PFAS depend on the likelihood of people eating sufficient quantities, Dr Milne told The Age.

“If a beef animal goes into an abattoir, it will be sold to wherever and people use small parts of the animal,” he said.

“But if it is home-killed, then the family’s going to eat the whole animal.”

There are no regulations in Australia for maximum recommended levels of PFAS in food for human consumption, according to Dr Milne, nor are there any overseas.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand says there is no “consistent evidence that these chemicals cause any adverse health effects in humans, including people highly exposed occupationally”.

SAFEMEAT, the Australian body that oversees systems to ensure the delivery of safe and hygienic meat products to the marketplace, formed a PFAS working group and is maintaining a “watching brief” on contamination associated with the use of firefighting chemicals, it said in its 2016-17 annual report.

“Ask about PFAS and its health effects and the chorus from state and Commonwealth governments and agencies is that there is no current evidence that PFAS exposure has a substantial impact on people’s health,” The Age reported.

“However, as Fairfax Media’s investigation has shown, numerous people around Australia and in the US have expressed serious fears about the health effects of PFAS exposure.”

Last week a long-delayed US Department of Health report was released, showing that PFAS chemicals found in public water supplies around America are threatening human health at concentrations seven to 10 times lower than previously realised.

New York’s Attorney-General has since launched legal action against five manufacturers of PFAS chemicals including 3M.

In the very state where 3M (formerly known as Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing) was founded, Fairfax Media revealed the deaths of five young people from cancer and an additional 16 cancer survivors who attended Tartan Senior High School in Oakdale since 2002.

All were diagnosed during their primary, middle or high school years, or within 10 years of graduating.

An Interim Human Health and Ecological Risk Assessment investigation into PFAS at RAAF Base, East Sale, conducted by environmental consulting firm Senversa for the Defence department and released in December, found elevated risks of exposure to PFAS through a variety of avenues, including livestock on or in the vicinity of the base.

It lists “home consumption of meat, offal and milk raised on-site” and “public consumption of meat, offal and milk raised on-site” among those risks. It also lists home consumption of duck meat and liver from birds hunted at the Heart Morass wetlands, even at low rates such as once a month, and of fish caught from the wetlands, among elevated risks of PFAS exposure.

The Environment Protection Authority said it had only issued alerts in relation to hunting and fishing, not livestock.

In response to questions from The Age, a Defence spokeswoman said there had been “no precautionary advice issued by state authorities relating to the consumption of meat, offal and milk from livestock within the investigation area”.

The spokeswoman said the final report was currently being prepared, would include further analysis of on-base livestock, and would be released in 2018.

Other potential sources of PFAS identified in a Defence department study include West Sale Airport and industrial sites around Morwell, including former coal mines and coal fired power stations, where the firefighting foams were used, as well as Gippsland Water’s Dutson Downs water treatment plant.

Victorian Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said the EPA was working to identify and manage PFAS contamination sites across Victoria, “to protect the community and prevent any harms posed by this substance”.