IT was only a few weeks after the Williamtown RAAF Base water contamination scandal was made public in September, 2015 that the NSW Government issued advice to residents about blood tests.
While there were tests available to detect perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in humans, they did not provide “an interpretable measure of health risk for the individual”, the government said.
For 12 months federal and state government health officials repeated the mantra whenever increasingly worried and frustrated Williamtown residents called for blood testing, to get some sense whether the contamination had had a measurable impact on their bodies.
Then baby William Kelly, 10 months, returned levels three times his mother Samantha’s results after tests in November, and long-time Williamtown resident Len O’Connell returned a shockingly high combined level of 189 ng/ml, eleven times the Australian average for the chemicals.
Those shock blood test results, and a class action against the Department of Defence, changed the equation. While the department remained defensive, Williamtown residents were not prepared to remain passive observers as contaminants continued to leach into their environment.
The voluntary blood tests that were finally announced in November extended to a newborn baby. The gravity of the contamination problem – and the unknowns – hits home with news that on the day of birth the baby had a combined PFOS/PFOA level that was already half the national average.
Residents were right to fight for the tests, particularly for what they are already showing. A man in the red zone saw his PFOS levels nearly double between a first test in November, 2015 and a second in April, 2016. In the months between the tests he worked in another state and returned to Salt Ash.
A man with a blood test showing a combined contamination figure more than eight times the national average has worked land near drainage channels from the RAAF Base’s heavily contaminated Lake Cochran for years.
It’s true that blood tests – even ones showing high results – don’t tell people what health risks they face. But as Williamtown residents have said since this sorry debacle began, they have the right to keep these chemicals out of their bodies.