AUSTRALIA’S food standards watchdog has chosen to dramatically lower safe limits for toxic firefighting chemicals in drinking water, in a shock verdict that could alter the course of the government’s response to the crisis at Williamtown.
The decision has the potential to see fishing bans reimposed on Hunter waterways and calls into question a 4,000 page Defence report outlining the risks to residents living in the contamination ‘red zone’
The new levels, announced by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) on Monday, will overturn controversial draft standards set by the Environmental Health Standing Committee (enHealth) less than 12 months ago.
Under the new rules, the safe combined level of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS) will be lowered from .5 to .07 micrograms per litre.
The safe level for sister chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) will be dropped from 5 to .56 micrograms per litre.
Tolerable Daily Intakes (TDIs) for all three chemicals will also be slashed.
The new levels resemble the standards set by the United States Environmental Protection Authority in May last year.
There was outcry from residents when – a month later – enHealth settled on using standards from Europe set in 2007, which were 78 times higher than the US standards.
But in a statement, the Federal Department of Health denied that the about-face indicates the enHealth levels were “wrong”.
“Both sets of values are precautionary and protective of public health,” it said.
“The interim values adopted by enHealth were always intended to be replaced by the final Australian values once FSANZ had completed its work.”
Kate Washington demands apology from federal government
Kate Washington has demanded an apology from the federal government as the gravity of the watchdog’s decision sets in across the region.
The Port Stephens Labor MP said the new tougher health standards vindicated the community who rallied in vain against enHealth advice that set standards 78 times higher than the US.
“Now we have a new set of experts that provide a different model with standards closer to the US EPA,” Ms Washington said.
“All of this keeps speaking to the whole sense that no one really knows what they’re talking about.”
Ms Washington said the new advice could see the red zone expanded.
“There have been properties that have been ruled out, but now some might need to be ruled in,” she said.
“It throws it all up in the air yet again.”
Asked what the federal government’s response to the toughened health advice should be, Ms Washington replied: “A sorry would be good. Sorry we got it wrong.”
PM ‘must come to Williamtown’
Reacting to the announcement, Paterson MP Meryl Swanson intensified her calls for senior members of the government to visit Williamtown.
Ms Swanson also queried a seemingly incongruous decision to lower the safe limits while leaving current health advice unchanged.
Current health advice is that there is no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse health effects in humans.
“This is why I think it’s absolutely vital that residents hear exactly what the changes mean for them,” Ms Swanson said.
The Department of Defence will hold a community walk-in session on Thursday for residents affected by the contamination.
Ms Swanson said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Defence Minister Marise Payne desperately needed to visit Williamtown.
“If he [Prime Minister Turnbull] is prepared to use a scrubbing brush in the floods, he should come Williamtown and clean up the contamination,” she said.
More needs to be done: senator
Meanwhile, Greens’ senator Lee Rhiannon called on the government to widen its response to the contamination crisis.
Senator Rhiannon said some advice from the food standard agency seemed “inexplicable” because it appeared to ignore the approach of other countries such as the US and Canada in relation to the chemical PFOA.
The food agency’s advice for the tolerable daily intake of PFOA is still nearly eight times the US EPA level.
“Clearly more needs to be done,” Senator Rhiannon said.
Senator Rhiannon said the contamination issue was a national problem that needed a beefed-up response.
“Williamtown and Oakey are singled out, which is great,” she said.
“But what about the firefighters, airport workers and other communities who have lived with these chemicals?
“There are 22 airports that could be contaminated; Williamtown has led this fight but it shouldn’t be up to them to make all the noise.”
More to come.