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“Worryingly high” levels of PFAS water contamination found at airport work sites

The Gold Coast airport expansion has recently been rocked with controversy after reports emerged that workers were not notified about high levels of PFAS contamination at work sites.

The ABC recently obtained reports through freedom of information (FOI) laws that some workers were made aware of the presence of the chemical back when works began in 2016. However, they were told that levels were too low to be of any consequence, while others were not made aware of the contamination at all.

Affected workers spent months wading through groundwater to lay pipes and other infrastructure for the airport expansion. A doctor who conducted blood tests on some of the workers found three showed elevated levels of PFAS, while others showed borderline levels.

“Our hands were saturated in it, our clothes were saturated in it, that was every day,” said onsite plumber Craig Anderson.

A University of Queensland report provided to Airservices Australia in 2015, a year before works began, recommended workers should avoid direct contact with contaminated materials, wash their clothes at work instead of at home, not take breaks on site and thoroughly wash their hands. However, workers say that no such recommendations were provided, despite the fact that many of them had sustained contact with the chemical.

The tip of the iceberg

Worries about PFAS contamination are growing as more and more cases come to light, including in water supplies in the Northern Territory and proposed water discharge sites in Victoria.

UNSW Associate Professor Robert Niven, an environmental engineer who studies PFAS contamination, told the ABC that the levels of contamination listed in the 2015 Airservices report about the Gold Coast airport expansion are “worryingly high”.

"If what they have said is correct, then they have clearly been exposed to PFAS contamination, so if I were in their situation I would be very concerned," he said.

"Statements to the effect of 'there is limited concern', or 'limited contamination present' … the numbers I have seen from those reports suggests there is significant contamination present."

Niven went so far as to label PFAS contamination ‘the next asbestos’, and said the problem goes well beyond airports, with hundreds – perhaps thousands – of sites across Australia at risk of contamination.

Although Airservices Australia ceased using firefighting foams containing PFAS in 2010, the long-term effects of these chemicals are now starting to emerge, especially as they don’t degrade and are hard to filter out during water treatment.

“The treatment plants don't actually have the capability to treat PFAS so it passes through the treatment plant and then partitions partly into the effluent and partly into the biosolids,” said Hunter Water Manager Environment and Sustainability Angus Seberry.

“Hunter Water, along with many other water utilities, has biosolids land application programs so it's an emerging issue to identify whether PFAS chemicals are present within biosolids and where these biosolids are going.”

Several organisations around the country have launched investigations into water contamination from PFAS chemicals, and the Australian Government’s PFAS Taskforce recently announced a $73.1 million funding package for local communities affected by PFAS contamination.

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