2020 September: Wreck Bay (NSW). Fears about PFAS contaminated drinking water. Loss of Cultural Practices

PFAS contamination leads to fears about Jervis Bay drinking water, cultural practices lost


Sep 20 2020

Residents of a Jervis Bay Aboriginal community are too scared to drink from the town’s mains water supply and say cultural practices have been stripped from them due to chemical contamination from the HMAS Creswell navy base.

Local Indigenous community leader James Williams said Wreck Bay residents were deeply concerned since the Department of Defence identified PFAS — synthetic chemicals that were used in firefighting foam for decades — had contaminated waterways in 2016.

While only low levels not deemed to be a risk to human health were found in the town’s drinking water at Lake Windemere, Indigenous community spokesman James Williams said residents were not willing to risk it.

“I found out people were boiling their water to have a cup of tea or cook dinner,” Mr Williams said.

“We decided to start a fundraiser to buy bottled water for those who couldn’t afford it to ease their minds.

Cultural practices lost

In December 2018 the Department of Defence published health advice that eating more than two serves of seafood per year from local creeks could lead to an elevated risk of exposure to the chemical.

Traditional communities have long sourced food from creeks in the area, including the much-loved spiny crayfish, and Mr Williams said residents now felt their culture had been stripped from them as they struggled to feed their families.

“We can’t go and hunt and gather anymore,” Mr Williams said.

“The seafood was a vital part of our diet and cultural practices here.

“It has impacted our community on a huge scale mentally, physically, and culturally.”

Despite the initial PFAS testing being done more than four years ago, the community remains in limbo.

No plan on how the contaminated areas will be managed or ecological risk assessment for Jervis Bay has been released by Defence.

“Defence has collected multiple samples from Lake Windemere, where the territory’s drinking water is sourced.

“Although PFAS has been detected, the concentrations found to date have all been many times lower than the national health based guidance value for PFAS in drinking water.”

Health effects of PFAS still unknown

The Department of Defence maintains there is no evidence linking PFAS exposure to adverse human health effects, however a number of Australian studies are underway that could change this.

A PFAS health study at the Australian National University is currently analysing blood tests from people living in communities with high PFAS exposure to determine its extent of PFAS in the population and its health effects.

Professor Martyn Kirk, part of the research team conducting the study, said results should be available by the end of next year.

“The three communities being studied are Williamtown, Oakey, and Katherine,” he said.

“We are looking to find out how much higher levels are in blood tests from these affected areas compared to non affected areas.

“There are also a number of other studies looking into health effects.”