First, residents of Williamtown were given a map of the contamination ‘red zone’ and were told they couldn’t use their bore water, eat fish from local waterways or eggs from backyard chickens.
In the two years since, they have been presented with four differing contamination maps and nearly as many sets of changing precautions to protect them from the per- and poly-fluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals that have invaded their bodies and properties.
Then they were told that these precautions – with their devastating effect on quality of life and property prices – were for chemicals that showed “no consistent evidence” of health effects.
There was no explanation to reconcile this with the advice of leading international agencies and experts sounding warnings over the hazard posed by PFAS to human health.
Commercial fisherman were told local waterways were toxic, then a fishing ban was lifted. Residents were warned not to eat their contaminated livestock but were free to sell it on the open market. Safe levels of PFAS in drinking water were dramatically raised and then lowered again in the space of less than 12 months.
At first glance, it might appear surprising that the medical fraternity has lashed the government’s health advice on PFAS as sending “mixed messages” which are “contradictory”, “confusing” and “highly problematic”.
Some may say it’s an understatement.
Regardless of these inadequacies, it is a positive step that the federal government has commissioned an Expert Health Panel to review the evidence linking PFAS with adverse health effects. The panel’s report is due for release in coming weeks.
Welcome, too, is a submission to the panel from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, that has for the first time seen a group of influential medical experts in Australia wade into the debate over health effects. They have demanded that Australia’s health advice reflect the “entire body of evidence” concerning PFAS, taking into account that the US EPA, German Human Biomonitoring Commission, Public Health England and United Nations have all linked exposure with adverse health effects.
At the very least, this will force the federal government to address why its position differs so markedly from the rest of the globe.
Williamtown will be watching.
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