Up to 40,000 residents of towns contaminated with chemicals from firefighting foams are set to sue the Australian government, making it the biggest class action lawsuit in the country’s history. There are fears that the chemicals may increase the risk of cancer.
The chemicals – called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS – were used in firefighting foams by Australia’s defence department in the 1970s. The lawsuit represents eight locations near military bases around the country.
The substances are known as “persistent organic pollutants” or “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down. They were phased out in 2004 after studies showed they had a strong tendency to accumulate in people’s blood and tissue and could potentially cause cancer.
However, by that time, they had already leaked into waterways near military bases across Australia where the firefighting foams were used during drills. Today, PFAS still contaminates some of these waterways, which are used for drinking, agriculture, swimming and other activities.
Residents living near some highly contaminated areas fear they have unusually high rates of cancer. An investigation by Fairfax Media found 50 cases of cancer in 15 years on a 5-kilometre stretch of farms and properties in an affected area.
Bruce Armstrong at the University of Sydney, Australia, cautions against interpreting the risks from anecdotal reports. In such small populations, it is difficult to say whether these rates are abnormal, and if they have any relationship to the chemicals if they are abnormal, he says
One 11-year-old boy living near another defence base was found with five times the safe limit of one of the chemicals in his bloodstream.
An independent panel established in 2017 told the government that the evidence was too weak to say that there is an overall cancer risk, but noted there were possible links with higher rates of testicular and kidney cancer.
The panel also found links between the chemicals and health conditions like reduced kidney function, higher cholesterol levels and lower birth weights in babies.
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Studies in laboratory animals suggest that some PFAS may cause cancers after a long exposure to high levels of the chemicals but how this translates to humans is still unclear.
Joshua Aylward, a representative of Shine Lawyers, the firm bringing the case, estimates that up to 40,000 people are affected and would be automatically eligible for compensation if they win the case. The lawsuit will argue that properties have lost value because of the contamination.
The Australian government has warned residents in some communities not to drink from waterways or bore water, or to eat fish or produce grown on nearby farms.
But there are concerns that the government is trying to downplay the risks. The defence department’s website says that the health effects of PFAS are “generally small and within normal ranges for the whole population”.
“There is also limited to no evidence of human disease or other clinically significant harm resulting from PFAS exposure at this time,” according to the department’s website.
Erin Brockovich, a US activist and Shine Lawyer ambassador, says the government is giving the public mixed messages.
“Residents are being told it doesn’t pose a risk to their health but at the same time the government is giving them bottled water,” she said in a statement. “It’s an extraordinarily confusing message.”
PFAS aren’t only found in firefighting foam. Because of their heat-, oil- and water-resistant properties, they have also been used in everyday household items like clothes, cookware and wire insulation all around the world. However, it is unclear whether exposure to PFAS in the home increases the risk of developing cancer.
Earlier this year, more than 180 countries agreed to ban one of the key chemicals used in these old firefighting foams, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), from most products.
The Australian class action lawsuit is expected to be filed by Christmas.
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