Something in the water
In March 2016 a story titled ‘What’s happening to the water in Williamtown?’ ran in the Sydney Morning Herald detailing the closure of nearby fishing grounds and the effects on the local fishing community. Located on the northern shores of the Hunter River, Willamtown is a fishing and farming community, and it also houses a Royal Australian Air Force base. Though the story lacked concrete evidence it implied the air base was the source of Willamtown's problems.
In 2015, the Department of Primary Industry (DPI) discovered a suspected carcinogen, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) in prawns and fish caught in adjacent Fullerton Cove. The DPI promptly banned all forms of fishing in the waterway, effectively dry docking Williamtown’s commercial fishing fleet and frightening locals who for years had swam in Fullerton Cover and drank the groundwater that flowed towards it.
Message from the people of Williamtown to the Department of Defence
As Chris Ray, who wrote the Herald article, stated, “Few people know of PFOS and its sister compound perfluourooctanoic acid (PFAS). We will soon hear a lot more about them.”
Created in 1949 by 3M, the same company who makes Post-It notes, those temporary memos we stick to the fridge, PFAS was a lucrative discovery. Unlike Post-It notes, PFAS is virtually indestructible in the environment and it also repels grease, oil, and water. PFAS is the key ingredient in Scotchgard. It found other uses in Teflon non-stick cookware, various cleaning agents, and both PFOS and PFAS were used to make aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) - fire-fighting foam.
In 1968, it was first suspected that PFOS was poisoning consumers, an argument strengthened in the 1970s and all but confirmed when in 1997 PFOS was found in global blood banks. Three years later 3M voluntarily phased out PFOS-related products, yet they were still manufactured in China and used in fire-fighting foam.
At airports around Australia, indeed around the world, fire-fighting foam was used in weekly drills, often simulated plane crashes, where response teams would ‘fight’ a blaze using PFAS-laden foam, then allow the dregs to wash into the groundwater. For over forty years PFAS was used internationally in fire-fighting foam, and subsequently allowed to leach into the ground.
In July 2017, the Newcastle Herald reported a cancer cluster in Williamtown with 24 people being diagnosed from just one street, Cabbage Tree Road, which lies between the airport and the waterway. The cluster received little media attention outside of Newcastle. However, later that year, Chris Ray’s statement started coming true and we began to hear a lot more about PFAS.
First was reports of elevated levels of PFAS at Coolangatta Creek, Kirra. The culprit again fire-fighting foam leaching into the soil at Coolangatta Airport and moving into the local waterways. Then in mid-2018 a report on the wider problem was published with almost every airport or air base implicated in some way, plus other chemical plants that also employed regular fire drills. Shortly thereafter it was revealed that aviation firefighters in Australia had up to 20 times the level of PFAS in their bloodstream to the general population despite PFAS being phased out of foam in 2010.
More recently, locals at Wreck Bay Village on the NSW south coast, home to Aussie Pipe, were told they could no longer swim in nearby Mary Creek and Summercloud lagoon as they'd been polluted by PFAS discharged over forty years at the nearby air force base. Swimming holes on the north side of the base near Hyams Beach and Jervis Bay Village have also been closed due to PFAS. Wreck Bay elder Jimmy Williams, who worked as an aviation firefighter and also swam, drank, and fished in Mary Creek, has been diagnosed with cancer. It's a lone case yet authorities are unable to ascertain the prevalence of a cluster due to administrative red tape - the ACT cannot access health records for another territory.
Hyams Beach has the whitest sand in the world and is overrun by tourists, while nearby Captain's Lagoon is best avoided
At the same time warning signs were going up at Wreck Bay came news that a PFAS-contaminated area was found immediately west of Adelaide airport near West Beach and North Glenelg, plus contamination presenting a "low level risk" at Seven Mile Beach, Hobart, which lies adjacent to Hobart airport. Wherever there's an airport there's a threat of PFAS contamination, and considering Australia's population pattern that means the threat is coastal.
The appeal of PFAS to industry, it's indestructibility, means that it bioaccumulates in various ecosystems, in the flora and fauna, ultimately ending up in humans. No-one's quite sure what that means yet, whether the Williamtown cancer cluster is an outlier or, as Chris Ray said, something we'll hear a lot more of.