An official program of blood testing for residents of the Williamtown ‘red zone’ began on Wednesday, as the fine print about the much-anticipated scheme was released by the federal Department of Health.
One blood test will be offered, free of charge, to anyone who has lived or worked in investigation areas around Defence bases at Williamtown and Oakey on the Queensland Darling Downs.
Both communities have been contaminated by perfluorinated chemicals (PFAS) from the use of toxic firefighting foam.
“The voluntary blood testing program will run concurrently with an epidemiological study and...will be available to eligible people until 31 March 2018,” Australia’s chief medical officer Professor Brendan Murphy said.
“Where individual consent is provided, the results of voluntary blood testing will be included as a key component of the epidemiological study also being undertaken in the affected communities.”
Sonic Healthcare has been engaged to conduct the testing and blood tests by other pathology providers will not be included in the scheme.
Some families have already been tested under interim arrangements; including Samantha and Jamie Kelly, whose 10-month-old son William showed up “significant” levels.
A departmental spokesperson confirmed those people would be reimbursed and could still have their results used in the health study.
Defence Force personnel can seek testing through their usual Defence garrison health facility.
However the adequacy of the blood testing program has been called into question, with residents living near but outside the ‘red zone’ set to miss out, even though the contamination has been found in residential bore water beyond the red line at Fullerton Cove and Campvale.
The Department said repeat tests were not recommended because they were of “no clinical value” and “studies suggest that it can take many years for PFAS blood levels to go down by half.”
But President of Salt Ash Community First, Nick Marshall was shocked that health authorities did not appear to be interested in monitoring residents’ changing blood levels over time.
“The main reason we wanted blood testing was to make sure our levels weren’t going up,” he said.
Member for Paterson Meryl Swanson welcomed the blood testing, but also reiterated her call for air testing.
“I would challenge the view of the Department of Health that the ‘extent of contamination and the exposure pathways are well understood’,” Ms Swanson said.
The federal government will fund pre- and post- test counselling for families and additional mental health support services in both communities.
Rhianna Gorfine from the Williamtown and Surrounds Residents Action group said given the community was going into a second Christmas living with the uncertainty and fallout from the contamination, the mental health support was welcome.
However she echoed the call for air testing in the area.
"The community as a whole is pushing for air monitoring to make sure all pathways are investigated,” she said.
Editor’s note: This article was amended after the Department of Health confirmed blood testing would be offered to children at day care centres, pre-schools and schools within the red zone.