In 2017, Four Corners uncovered the story of Cabbage Tree Road in Williamtown, NSW, where some 50 people have been diagnosed with cancer over 15 years. The suspected catalyst was the area’s storm water drains, which carry runoff downhill from the Williamtown RAAF air-base. And it’s alleged that firefighting foam used in training exercises had contaminated the runoff, poisoning residents as it flowed past their homes.
After nine months of consideration, the government has now released a report claiming the foam was unlikely to have had a “large impact” on health, and affected properties will not be bought out as compensation. Although the government will continue to supply residents with bottled drinking water as the local supply is “unsafe.”
At the centre of the scandal is the firefighting foam used at the local airbase. The foam contains chemicals polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency are both linked to “developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants, cancer…liver effects, immune effects (e.g., antibody production and immunity), thyroid effects and other effects (e.g., cholesterol changes).”
In 2016, a United Nations toxins committee agreed that both PFAS and PFOA were linked to six diseases, including cancer, and a total of 161 countries agreed to ban their use. But two years later, Australia still refuses to.
A spokesman for the Department of Defence told ABC’s Four Corners alleged that they should have warned the public about the contamination three years before they actually did. Residents have been flagging warnings to the government as far back as 1987, but it was only revealed to local residents in 2015 that the toxic waste had polluted drains and waterways.
The government report has been slammed by residents and local MPs who have described it as “a complete farce”. According to residents, 80 percent of the population the Government sampled did not even live in the contaminated area, while the study only considered cancer patients between 2005 and 2014, ignoring those who had left the area.
“They’ve changed the red zone three times already, they’ve changed the safe levels three times. I don’t think these clowns know what they’re doing,” explained the President of Salt Ash Community First, Nick Marshall to the Port Stephens Examiner.
In November last year, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, an organisation that represents 25,000 medical specialists, rebuked the Federal Government’s advice that there was “no consistent evidence” of adverse health effects from PFAS.
In the same month, NSW chief scientist, Professor Mary Kane and NSW Environment Protection Authority chair Barry Buffier, said the footprint of Williamtown's “red zone” will expand 50 percent, bringing another 250 households into the contaminated zone.