Stress high but other health effects ‘limited’ in communities exposed to PFAS near Defence bases

By Jackson Graham

December 12, 2021

Paul Kelly
Chief medical officer Paul Kelly. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Australian communities exposed to higher levels of a firefighting foam historically used on Defence bases have recorded elevated concentrations of the chemical in their blood but researchers haven’t found conclusive evidence of poorer health outcomes. 

The ANU study commissioned by the Department of Health showed elevated concentrations of the chemical in people’s blood and increased psychological distress among people who lived or worked near the sites.

The communities at Katherine in the Northern Territory, Oakey in Queensland and Williamtown in New South Wales are near Defence bases that used a firefighting foam containing PFAS. Defence phased out its use of the chemical in 2004. 

Researchers are unsure of the health effects of PFAS but are aware it persists in humans, animals and the environment.

In line with other studies internationally, the researchers found elevated cholesterol concentrations in people recording higher levels of the chemical in their blood. 

But the study found any evidence of further adverse health outcomes for people in the three communities to be “generally limited”. 

“Our findings were consistent with previous studies that have not conclusively identified causative links between PFAS and health outcomes,” the report states

Professor Martyn Kirk, the study’s lead author from ANU’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, said the main factors for people having higher levels of the PFAS in their blood were the length of time they had lived in the town, regularly drinking bore water, eating local-grown foods or working with firefighting foams in the past. 

“In exposed communities, one-third of people reported being ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ concerned about their health, including one in five people who had serious concerns about their mental health,” Kirk said. 

Australian chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly said the health department saw the study as a step towards better understanding PFAS exposure and potential health effects. 

“The consistency of the findings of the ANU study with previous studies that have not identified direct links between PFAS and adverse health outcomes is encouraging,” Kelly said. 

“This study is the first significant piece of Australian research of this kind and we thank all those individuals who participated.”


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