Health threat from air base waterway

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Precautionary advice from the Queensland Department of Health suggests that swimming in
or eating fish from waterways near RAAF Amberley could pose a threat to the health of humans.

The health advice comes after an 18-month investigation uncovering where exposure risks to per– and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) may be elevated for residents living in the surrounding areas of RAAF Base Amberley.

PFAS levels are heightened in these areas as a result of the historical use of legacy firefighting foams at the Base, even though the foams haven’t been used on-base since 2004.
Department of Defence spokesperson, Chris Birrer said a lot of the findings from the Human Health Risk Assessment (HHRA) are “heavily precautionary”.

“The assumptions made are precautionary – that people would swim there [Bremer River and Warrill Creek] 52 days a year, up to an hour and a half at a time and swallow reasonably large amounts of water – so these recommendations have a precautionary advice underpinning it but we think that’s important in terms of being open and transparent with the community.”

The HHRA found that other activities such as consuming home grown chicken eggs and home-grown fruits also elevate the risk of PFAS exposure. However, Mr Birrer said that while people should avoid exposure to PFAS, there’s no consistent evidence on the impact PFAS has to human health.

“Formal health advice is that there’s no consistent evidence on the human health impact from exposure to PFAS, but people should minimise their exposure,” he said.

“We know the key exposure pathways are people drinking water that’s been impacted by PFAS, and nobody in the investigation area that we’ve found has been drinking ground water or anything. They’re drinking reticulated town water which is PFAS free.”

The impact of PFAS and the technology surrounding PFAS testing is still emerging.
Some effects of PFOS and PFOA noted in testing on laboratory animals include benign tumours and impact on the liver, reproduction and development.
Developed in the 1940s, most humans have some level of PFAS in their bodies as it can be found in common household items such as shampoo, scotch guard, non-stick cookware, food packaging and pesticides.

Mr Birrer said Defence was not aware of the risks of PFAS while using it in firefighter training activities and phased out use of the foam containing PFOS and PFOA when they became aware of the risks.

“PFAS is still an emerging contaminant; there’s still a lot of research being done both in Australia and internationally into PFAS,” he said.

“We didn’t know at the time that it was used that PFAS was as persistent as it is and could be transported as easily, so there is an element of catch-up with the research internationally.”
The investigation, ran by independent company ch2m will continue until the second quarter of 2019.

A community information held in November was to keep concerned residents and environmental groups in touch with the findings so far.

“We’ve kept in touch with interested people throughout the investigation and we’re always open in talking either to residents or environmental groups, keeping them up to date with the investigation.. even now we don’t have all the answers, that won’t happen until next year but we want to present what we have now so people can feel as though they’re engaged during the journey rather than just finding out everything at the end,” Mr Birrer said.

Jo Cuttler, the Executive Director of Environmental Solutions from ch2m said so far, the results haven’t been too surprising and residents in the affected areas should follow the advice of Queensland Health.

“[RAAF Amberley] Base has used firefighting foams [with PFAS] so we expected to find contamination on the base. We tested the waterways because we know PFAS is water soluble and we didn’t know where it would go so that of course was unknown to us before testing.”

“The public should take advice from the Department of Health who have put out precautionary advice on eating fish in the Bremer River, there’s a human health risk assessment and an ecological risk assessment that are underway and that will provide a future risk assessment and then that will be given to the Department of Health who will then provide advice based on that.”