An independent health panel established by the federal government has found PFAS exposure can lead to a range of health “effects”, including reduced kidney function and hormonal changes, but that the level of these effects is “within normal ranges” for the whole population.
The Expert Health Panel for PFAS, after reviewing the “limited” amount of available scientific research on PFAS contamination, found these health effects also included increased levels of cholesterol and uric acid in the blood; alterations in some indicators of immune response; altered levels of thyroid hormones and sex hormones; later age for starting menstruation in girls; earlier menopause; and lower birth weight in babies.
But the report, which was issued on Monday by Australia’s chief medical officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, said there was “mostly limited or no evidence for any link with human disease from these observed differences”.
“Importantly, there is no current evidence that supports a large impact on a person’s health as a result of high levels of PFAS exposure,” it said.
“However, the panel noted that, even though the evidence for PFAS exposure and links to health effects is very weak and inconsistent, important health effects for individuals exposed to PFAS cannot be ruled out based on the current evidence.”
Residents at Williamtown and Oakey, Queensland, have launched a class action against the Department of Defence over PFAS contamination from air bases.
The PFAS panel concluded there was “no current evidence that suggests an increase in overall cancer risk”.
A Newcastle Herald investigation last year found 50 cases of cancer in 15 years on Cabbage Tree Road, which intersects with a network of open drains carrying contaminated run-off from Williamtown RAAF base.
The Expert Health Panel for PFAS, comprised of experts in environmental health, toxicology, epidemiology and public health, was established in October 2017 to advise the government on the potential health impacts associated with PFAS exposure and identify priority areas for research.
It considered evidence from Australian and international scientific research and the views of the public in forming its advice to the government. It met three times between October 2017 and February 2018 and conducted out-of-session work.
The panel’s report has been provided to the National Health and Medical Research Council and will be used to inform the $12.5 million National Research Program into the Human Health Effects of Prolonged Exposure to PFAS.
In February, NSW Health issued the results of its investigation into the Cabbage Tree Road cancer cases, saying it “does not indicate evidence of a cancer cluster in Williamtown”.
That study was slammed as “truly meaningless” and a “complete farce” by Labor after revelations that about 80 per cent of the population it sampled did not live in the contaminated zone and that at least 18 of the 50 cancer cases uncovered by the Herald investigation had been excluded.
The federal Department of Health said the latest findings supported the Environmental Health Standing Committee’s advice that there was no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS caused adverse human health effects.
However, given the chemicals continued to persist in humans and the environment, exposure to them should be minimised.
The panel said the evidence did not support specific screening or health interventions for highly exposed groups, except for research purposes.
It also concluded there was insufficient evidence of causation between PFAS exposure and adverse health outcomes.
The panel recommended future research focus on long-term studies, adding PFAS exposure to existing research.
“The Australian Government is committed to supporting communities and responding effectively to PFAS contamination,” the health department said.
“This commitment has included reducing exposure from contaminated drinking water, providing mental health and counselling services, funding an epidemiological study into potential health effects and providing access to free blood tests for PFAS on a voluntary basis.”
The full report is available on the Department of Health website here.