ESSO workers will undergo blood tests to determine their levels of exposure to potentially toxic chemicals once used in fire fighting foams at the Longford gas plant and Bass Strait gas platforms.
WorkSafe Victoria has provided $40,000 to the Electrical Trades Union to test up to 100 people who were exposed to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known by the acronym PFAS, which were widely used until a decade ago.
In 2017, PFAS was detected in ground water and near Esso’s Longford gas plant. One year later, the Department of Agriculture confirmed 45 cattle and 45 sheep, from three properties in Longford, tested positive for elevated levels of PFAS.
A parliamentary inquiry, tabled late last year, noted that while evidence was “inconsistent”, it recommended the federal government review its advice on the health effects of PFAS exposure, and do more to monitor the health impacts of PFAS exposure.
The report noted that exposure to PFAS had been associated with certain medical conditions in overseas studies, but that some human health studies had found associations between exposure to PFAS chemicals and health effects and others had not.
“In addition, the studies that found associations were not able to determine with certainty that the health effects were caused by the chemical being studied or other factors, such as smoking,” it noted.
The report called for more research before definitive statements could be made on causality or risk.
PFAS chemicals are a group of man-made chemicals that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water and have been widely used since the 1950s in household and industrial products.
The chemicals do not break down readily in the environment, can travel long distances through soil and water and can get into groundwater. It is known that PFAS levels build up in animals and humans and remain for many years in the human body.
In Australia, decisions were made about 10 years ago to phase out the most concerning PFAS chemicals, including the firefighting foams, to reduce human exposure. Recently, a number of communities close to where these fire-fighting foams were used in the past have been advised to lessen further exposure by not drinking contaminated water sources and eating foods with high levels of PFAS.
However, the report from the 2018 parliamentary inquiry found the level of health effect reported in people with the highest exposure is “generally still within the normal ranges for the whole population”.
The government report notes that the presence of PFAS in blood serum does not necessarily mean there will be adverse health effects, and it cannot be conclusively determined where the contamination took place.
The inquiry panel concluded there is mostly limited or no evidence for any link with human disease. Importantly, there is no current evidence that supports a large impact on a person’s health as a result of high levels of PFAS exposure. However, important health effects for individuals exposed to PFAS cannot be ruled out based on the current evidence.
Esso spokesman Travis Parnaby said the company was being guided by federal and state agencies that do not recommend blood testing for PFAS.
All Australians were expected to have some amount of PFAS in their blood due to the wide range of things they have been used for.
A broad range of levels would be expected in all communities due to background exposure.
Government advice is that there is no level of PFAS that was considered “normal” or “abnormal”.