A leading group of Australian doctors has slammed federal health advice on the chemicals at the centre of the Williamtown scandal, arguing the government’s position is “highly problematic”, “confusing” and doesn’t provide a complete picture of the international evidence.
The Department of Health’s advice – stating there is “no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse human health effects” – has long been condemned by residents of the red zone, who argue it contradicts warnings from world-leading agencies, including the US EPA.
However this is the first time Australia’s medical fraternity has publicly weighed into the debate.
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) trains and represents over 25,000 medical and trainee specialists across Australia and New Zealand.
In its submission to a newly-formed Expert Health Panel on per- and poly-flouroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals, the RACP argues for a national ban on firefighting foam and says Australia should have ratified a global agreement made nearly a decade ago to phase out the contaminants.
The document is scathing of the government’s health advice, based on guidance statements from the Environmental Health Standing Committee (EnHealth).
“The current enHealth advice is likely to be confusing for the public,” the RACP submission said.
“It weakens approaches that apply the precautionary principle when advising the public about food and water consumption at sites potentially contaminated with PFAS.
“We advocate for a change to the national health advice that incorporates the latest international evidence for adverse health effects.”
It is the second time EnHealth has come under heavy criticism for its position on the chemicals.
In 2016, EnHealth controversially set safe drinking water standards for PFAS that were 78 times higher than those in the United States.
The Saturday Paper later revealed that three companies that had won multimillion-dollar contracts with Defence – a major PFAS polluter – were involved in EnHealth’s deliberations.
The standards were dramatically lowered upon a review by Australia’s food standards watchdog.
The RACP submission refers to the advice of the US EPA, German Human Biomonitoring Commission, Public Health England and the United Nation’s Stockholm Convention, which all link exposure to PFAS with adverse health effects.
The submission also points out that EnHealth was the same body commissioned to develop safe standards for drinking water.
“We are concerned that the health advice ‘that there is currently no consistent evidence of health effects’ could be interpreted to mean there is no unsafe dose and no health effects even for exposures above the interim values,” the submission said, suggesting that it should be clarified that the advice only applied where exposures were within the tolerable daily intake.
“The existing enHealth advice as currently worded is highly problematic in that it does not adequately address the entire body of evidence demonstrating the association of PFAS with adverse human health effects … and takes the narrow view of evidence for causation alone,” it said.
“We therefore strongly advocate for a change to the national health advice that … provides a more complete (if complex) picture of the evidence for adverse human health effects.”
Williamtown residents can not eat their own contaminated livestock but can sell it on the open market, and the submission noted the issue of selling contaminated meat was “yet another example of .. contradictory messages”.
Andrew Jeremijenko, a Brisbane doctor and specialist in environmental medicine, also made a submission to the panel.
He argued Australia should have changed its health advice and ratified the Stockholm Convention when PFOS was listed in 2009, but “someone killed it”
“Someone didn’t want us to ratify it and someone didn’t want us to change the health advice,” he said.
“It’s not like it’s just a few scientists, we’ve got a worldwide agreement and Australia hasn’t agreed to it. You really have to ask the question why?”
Dr Jeremijenko felt the medical profession had failed in its duty to protect public health because it had not been strong enough with its advice to the government on PFAS.
“We were really slow at getting the government to ban asbestos and now we’ve done the same thing with PFAS,” he said.
“We’re conflict avoidant.”