Have environmental watchdogs dropped the ball?


SILICOSIS, asbestosis, and pneumoconiosis or black lung disease, have struck Queensland workers with deadly force.

Hard questions must now be asked: Were our health and safety officers vigilant enough?

Was air quality testing properly carried out in our coal mines? What precautions were taken in the stone cutting and roof insulation trades?

State and federal watchdogs have known the risks for decades.

The emergence of a new chemical threat suggests the enviro regulators have dropped the ball again.

Contaminated groundwater in Oakey.
Contaminated groundwater in Oakey.

Scientists fear toxins found in soil and water may be more widespread than first thought.

Compounds known as perfluorinated chemicals have been found in dozens of Queensland towns and suburbs - including parks and playgrounds. Traces of the contaminant have been found in fish, promoting warnings it has entered the food chain. It has been identified in recycled materials used as mulch and compost on sports ovals.

The Senate heard the compounds - named as perfluorooctane sulfonate or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA - had leached into groundwater used to irrigate crops. Combined they are known as PFAS.

The revelations come as the Queensland Environment Department investigates recycling firms that allegedly handled contaminated waste.

Worryingly, reports to state and federal parliaments in recent years are confusing and seem to me to be contradictory.

Man-made chemicals were slow to break down in the environment and may pose cancer risks, the Senate heard.

Some of the compounds first appeared in common household products from the 1950s, including non-stick cookware, food packaging and carpet stain protection.

Alarms were raised when PFOS and PFOA were found in firefighting foams used at military and civilian airports and by Queensland firemen.

PFAS, PFOA and PFOS are the names given to chemicals used in firefighting.
PFAS, PFOA and PFOS are the names given to chemicals used in firefighting.

"Over time, these chemicals have worked their way through the soil to contaminate surface and groundwater, and have migrated into adjoining land areas," the Senate report says.

"The release of PFAS into the environment is an emerging concern, because these chemicals are highly persistent, have been shown to be toxic to fish and some animals, and can accumulate in the bodies of fish, animals and people who come into contact with them."

It adds: "There is no conclusive evidence that exposure to PFAS causes cancer in humans. Some studies have shown a possible link between kidney and testicular cancers and PFAS. In these studies there was no overall increased risk of cancer. In these studies other potential cancer-causing factors such as smoking were not considered. There are also some studies that have not shown a link between cancers and PFAS exposure. Studies in rats have shown an increase in some types of thyroid cancer."

The toxins have been found in soil and water after tests at numerous Queensland airports, fire stations and ports at Amberley, Brisbane, Enoggera, Windsor, Annerley, Roma St, Charleville, Sarina, Townsville, Cairns, Mackay, Coolangatta, Proserpine, Gladstone, Noosa, Airlie Beach, Dysart, Rockhampton, Mount Isa, Maryborough, Caloundra, Coolangatta groundwater and Sunshine Coast. Testing is ongoing.

An ominous Queensland Health report says the toxins pose a danger to workers and industries linked to firefighting, airports and shipping ports.

"Whether PFAS cause health problems in humans is currently unknown, but on current evidence the potential for adverse health effects cannot be excluded," that report says.

Yet some state and federal reporting seems confusing and possibly contradictory.

Low levels of PFOS and PFOA were found in prawns, crabs and squid collected in waters off Brisbane last year. Tests by Fisheries Queensland revealed the toxins were below the "trigger levels" established by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand. However, some baitfish collected contained toxins exceeding the levels.

The Queensland Government admits some toxins found exceeded nationally agreed guidelines.

"We expect the Commonwealth to conduct whatever investigations are needed to determine the source and extent of any contamination, advise the public of these investigations and take whatever action is required to remediate lands affected by that contamination," said Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch in a statement.

Minister for Environment and the Great Barrier Reef, Minister for Science and Minister for the Arts Leeanne Enoch. Picture: Tara Croser.
Minister for Environment and the Great Barrier Reef, Minister for Science and Minister for the Arts Leeanne Enoch. Picture: Tara Croser.

"When it comes to PFAS contamination and clean-up, the polluter should pay."

She adds: "Where these substances are detected at levels that exceed nationally agreed guidelines, the affected community is informed as a matter of priority and appropriate action is taken.''

Enoch says the department issued a recycling firm, NuGrow, with an order to cease receiving "any liquid waste known to contain, or reasonably likely to contain, detectable PFAS contamination".

The Planning and Environment Court was told NuGrow accepted 940,000 litres of toxic stormwater from Amberley Airforce base.

NuGrow denies wrongdoing and is seeking to have the order removed.

NuGrow has won environmental awards for recycling, and disposes of everything from grease trap waste to spoiled milk to abattoir blood.

It has permits to use defunct coal mines at Swanbank near Ipswich for landfill. Perhaps it has a permit to pollute?

Enoch says another Queensland firm, Wood Mulching Industries, has been served with a notice "to investigate the source of the PFAS contamination, the nature and extent of contamination and potential harm as a result of any PFAS contamination".

Testing continues around 56 airports in Australia.

The Senate has heard contaminants are "ubiquitous" and are found in polar bears, in rainfall and water drawn from the mid-Pacific Ocean.

The Senate was also told of a 2012 University of Queensland study that found contaminants in Wivenhoe Dam.

It said: "PFCs (Perfluorochemicals) were detected in Wivenhoe Dam but significant sources were detected in the side branches consistent with the urban catchment being a significant contributor to the load of PFCs received in Moreton Bay.

"Due to their chemical structure, PFOS and PFOA are chemically and biologically stable in the environment, resisting typical degradation processes."

A federal standing committee warns the substances are slow to break down. "They can persist for a long time and can travel long distances in water and air currents," a report says.

The Senate report says it wasn't until the early '80s that firefighting foams contained PFOS and PFOA.

A long-term epidemiological study is underway after a number of Australians were found to have the chemicals in their blood.

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