By Carrie Fellner – 4th March 2020
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Government exposed to legal payouts after landmark finding that there is “good evidence” that toxic firefighting chemicals could cause some cancers.
A landmark finding that there is “good evidence” toxic firefighting chemicals could potentially cause harmful health effects including cancer has undercut the federal government’s claim the risks are “minimal” and left it exposed to the threat of millions of dollars in legal payouts.
The government last week settled three class actions launched by households near defence bases at Williamtown, Oakey and Katherine, after their land was polluted with per- and poly-fluoroalkyl chemicals [PFAS].
Those cases likely represent the tip of the iceberg, with a further 24 military sites in Australia being investigated or managed for PFAS contamination and the settlement only covering economic losses.
The government backdown came only weeks after a court-appointed independent umpire assessed the state of the health evidence and delivered his findings.
Associate Professor Nick Osborne’s report – obtained by The Sydney Morning Herald – found PFAS chemicals potentially caused harmful health effects including high cholesterol, kidney and testicular cancer.
“The existing body of evidence suggests that it is eminently possible … [PFAS] has negative health outcomes,” wrote Professor Osborne, from the University of Queensland’s School of Public Health.
The “forever chemicals”- which do not break down – were in firefighting foam manufactured by 3M, and have historically been ingredients in popular products such as Scotchguard and Teflon pans.
In the Federal Court this week, Justice Michael Lee confirmed the settlement terms leave the door open to a personal injury action.
Professor Osborne based his findings on an examination of the scientific literature, 30 years experience and expert reports written on behalf of each of the warring parties.
Those reports, by Professor Phillipe Grandjean and Professor Tony Fletcher, were in “broad agreement” there was enough evidence to say PFAS potentially caused health effects.
Professor Osborne noted a different approach was taken by the Australian government’s expert health panel, appointed to investigate the effects of PFAS in 2018.
It found “no evidence” that PFAS caused any “important health effects”, on the same day as a government announcement there would be no buy-outs for people stranded on toxic properties.
As recently as last week the federal government told a parliamentary inquiry its advice was “PFAS probably has minimal impact on human health”.
Professor Osborne noted there were “mixed” ideas about the effects of PFAS in the scientific community, and reports were also written with “different audiences in mind”.
However, he argued that using a higher bar sometimes posed a risk to communities exposed to a chemical while they were waiting for scientists to collect enough evidence to prove it was hazardous.
“This can be decadal or even generational in length (ie the continuing lowering in acceptable levels of air pollution since the 1950s),” Professor Osborne noted.
He also stressed that in science it was difficult to reach the point where a chemical could definitively be said to cause a certain health problem.
Instead, the risk was usually assessed on a “sliding scale of this probability from likely to unlikely” based on an evolving body of scientific evidence.
Most of the research on PFAS began after the year 2000 and for the first decade was nearly exclusively industry funded.
Internal 3M documents that emerged in an overseas lawsuit saw the company accused of funding studies so it could “command the science” on PFAS and attempting to suppress damaging academic research.
In 2016 a Newcastle Herald investigation uncovered 50 cancer cases along a NSW road heavily polluted with PFAS.
Professor Osborne said it was a “rapidly moving field” with a “high volume of studies” under way.
“No doubt new evidence will be released in the forthcoming years that will alter our thinking around PFAS,” he said. “Great changes are expected in the near future.”