PFAS at ‘safe levels’

GIPPSLAND Water has confirmed that potentially toxic chemicals detected in recycled waste water at the Dutson Downs recycling plant are within the health-based guidelines.

A spokeswoman said testing to date for PFAS at Dutson Downs had shown that the wastewater met all the required standards and guidelines before it was returned to the environment.

The treatment plant at Dutson Downs accepts and treats about 10 billion litres of wastewater each year from large sections of Gippsland, and tests and monitors the treated wastewater for a wide range of contaminants, including per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances.

Dutson Downs is home to a Soil and Organic Recycling Facility (SORF) originally commissioned in 2008.

It is an EPA-licensed waste treatment and composting facility at the Gippsland Water-owned 8500-plus hectare property.

The SORF accepts and treats EPA prescribed and non-prescribed wastes, including tannery wastes, industrial, car, truck and machinery wash waters, content from grease traps in commercial kitchens, milk and food wastes, poultry manure, green waste and other organics.

Gippsland Water also confirmed that it has been testing drinking water in the Sale water supply and the bore water that supplies the Sale water treatment plant for PFAS/PFOS, since 2015.

That testing confirms that the drinking water for Sale and Wurruk “is safe and all levels have been within health-based guidelines since testing began”.

A spokeswoman said “providing safe drinking water is a priority and the ongoing monitoring of the Sale water supply remains a fundamental part of our drinking water risk management procedures”.

An expert health panel set up in October 2017 to advise the government on the potential health impacts associated with exposure to the chemicals, found that health effects could not be ruled out “based on the current evidence”, and noted a possible link between chemical exposure and an increased risk of testicular and kidney cancer.

The panel also noted that the level of health effects in people with the highest exposure was generally still within “normal ranges” for the whole population.

In June 2016, the Department of Health commissioned Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) to develop final health based guidance values for perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS), which belong to the group of chemicals known as PFAS.

But last year the federal government lowered the safe exposure levels of the toxic firefighting chemicals following the detection of chemicals at military bases and fire fighting sites.

The guideline for maximum tolerable daily intake of PFOS in drinking water was reduced by 7.5 times from 0.5 micrograms to 0.07 micrograms per litre, and from 5 micrograms to 0.56 for PFOA.

The health-based guidelines, which indicate the amount of a chemical in food or drinking water that a person can consume on a regular basis over a lifetime without any significant risk to health, are available on the federal department of health’s website.

PFAS chemicals are found widely throughout the environment, and have been used in non-stick cookware, Scotchguard and some types of fire-fighting foam.

However, there is increasing fear about the health effects of the chemicals, with recent reports of cancer clusters near PFAS sites in New South Wales and the United States.

Various scientific reports have noted there is inconclusive evidence of adverse health effects, however, a case study of 456 children in Taiwan (2009-2010), noted links between high PFAS serum levels and asthma.

Shine Lawyers’ special counsel for class actions, Joshua Aylward, who has been involved in PFAS actions in Oakey, Queensland, and Katherine in the Northern Territory, said it was the Commonwealth’s duty to protect and inform local people of the “cataclysmic impact of consistent exposure to this toxic substance”.

Mr Aylward said the United States and Europe were looking at lowering safe exposure levels for PFAS.

“If the Australian government reduces levels to what the rest of the wold is doing, all of a sudden we’re in a higher risk [level].”

Mr Aylward described PFAS as “a global disaster, reaching communities across the world”.

“Increasingly, we’re learning of how it permeates through water and soil, never disintegrating and gradually causing destruction to land, land value and both human and animal health.

“This indestructible toxic substance is destroying locals’ livelihoods.”

Mr Aylward also pushed for blood-testing of affected workers in PFAS-contaminated areas.

“Authorities say they don’t want to test people’s blood, because it won’t tell them anything,” he said.

“In other countries they do test blood — people do deserve to know how much [PFAS] is in their blood.”