THE chair of the Turnbull government’s expert health panel on toxic firefighting chemicals has told residents he was “dragged” into doing the job and someone “better qualified” should have steered its investigation.
The revelations come on the day a public hearing will be held in Williamtown as part of a senate inquiry into the federal government’s handling of the per- and poly-fluoroalkyl [PFAS] contamination. In its submission to the inquiry, the Coalition Against PFAS accused Professor Nick Buckley, from the University of Sydney, of making the remarks at a public meeting in the Northern Territory in June.
When asked last week if he made the comments, Professor Buckley evaded the question. He labelled concern over the remarks “silly”, playing them down as “some out-of-context selective quotes that may or may not be accurate”.
But Fairfax has obtained video footage of the meeting in Katherine, where Professor Buckley introduced himself to residents as a specialist in drugs and poisons.
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“Somehow I got dragged into doing this expert panel,” he said. “I was asked to chair this panel and I said ‘surely you could get someone better qualified um, so, but they insisted I do this’. And I come to this with … no background in doing PFAS research, so I just want to make that clear.”
The findings of the expert panel – that there is no evidence that PFAS causes “important” health effects – were released on the same day the Turnbull government announced it would not buy out people whose property values have been decimated by contaminated run-off from military bases.
The Coalition Against PFAS argued the expert panel’s report was “rushed and secretive” and contradicted health warnings from respected international agencies. Coalition president Lindsay Clout described it as “bizarre” that none of the panel members had been asked to testify at public hearings.
“If you are so confident in your medical research and your findings, wouldn’t you be out there, day after day, pushing that message that there is nothing to really worry about?” he said.
Professor Buckley defended the panel’s findings, arguing they were in line with the conclusions of major international agencies.
“The suggestion it reached vastly different conclusions doesn’t stand up to even the most rudimentary investigation,” he said.
Professor Buckley said he had chaired a range of expert panels, and argued other members of the four-person panel had a background in PFAS. “It was put to me, there was a clear desire to have an independent chair without a background in PFAS research – as all the PFAS experts were perceived to have some sort of potential vested interests,” he said.
The panel found there was evidence tying PFAS exposure to changes in immune response, thyroid and hormone levels. But there was “no evidence” this could have a “large impact” on health.
The US EPA has found “the weight of evidence” supports the conclusion that the chemicals are a human health hazard.