The federal government has blamed a “one-off human error” for a test result that raised concerns it may be underestimating levels of toxic firefighting chemicals in the blood of people living in Williamtown’s red zone.
The Morrison government is defending multiple class actions over Defence’s use of the potentially carcinogenic per- and poly-fluoroalkyl [PFAS] chemicals and has refused to compensate families stranded on unsaleable properties.
However it has offered to fund a single blood test for residents.
Last month the Newcastle Herald revealed a glaring discrepancy in the results when a resident living near the RAAF base had his blood sampled twice on the same day. Terry Robinson paid for one of the tests himself, at a cost of $650. The test showed his level of one of the chemicals, perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS), was 49 ng/ml.
The result was more than double the 21 ng/ml returned for the same chemical in the government-funded test.
But in an email circulated to residents and government officials, a senior Department of Health bureaucrat blamed a “one-off human error” that was “not associated with the quality of its [the laboratory's] chemical analysis” for the high result in the first test. The error was allegedly discovered two days after the article was published.
Mr Robinson and his wife, Jenny, were not informed of the mistake and only learned of it when they were contacted for comment. “That’s bull****”,” said Ms Robinson, who is one of 50 residents from her street who have had cancer. “We want our $650 back if that’s the case.”
The Department of Health opted not to use the country’s peak scientific laboratory - the National Measurement Institute (NMI) - to perform the national blood sampling program.
The $3 million tender was instead awarded to a private contractor, Sonic Healthcare.
Mr Robinson arranged for his self-funded blood sample to be drawn by Laverty Pathology and analysed at the NMI, which is a government agency falling under the Department of Industry.
Health Minister Greg Hunt referred the Herald’s questions about the error to his department, which said they were a matter for the Department of Industry.
A spokesperson said NMI checked the test data in the wake of the media reporting and discovered a “human error related to the data analysis”.
“The error was not a systematic error,” the spokesperson said. “It was a one-off human error only occurring for this sample.
“After identifying the error, NMI informed its client, Laverty Pathology, of the error, and the Australian Government Department of Health.”
When asked if NMI had been contacted by government officials prior to discovering the error, the spokesperson said the agency was in “regular contact on a range of issues” with government departments but identified the mistake “on its own accord”.
The spokesperson said NMI had completed an internal corrective action report and updated its checking procedures in the wake of the error. “All data provided by NMI to Laverty Pathology in 2018 have been checked and no similar errors were found,” the spokesperson said. “Analyses done prior to 2018 used a different method that did not involve the manual integration step. The current method provides more information, but is more complex.”
Lindsay Clout, from national advocacy group the Coalition against PFAS, said the belated discovery of the error seemed “extraordinary”.
"They're going into panic mode," he said.
The fresh concerns over testing methods for PFAS come after Fairfax Media independently sampled a drain near a military base last year and discovered the chemicals at levels 34 times higher than those reported by authorities.