Collecting soil for contamination checks
Collecting soil for contamination checks

Queensland’s toxic towns revealed

SCIENTISTS fear toxins found in Queensland soil and water may be more widespread than first thought.

Compounds known as perfluorinated chemicals have been found in dozens of Queensland towns and suburbs - including parks and playgrounds.

Traces of the contaminant have been found in fish, promoting warnings it has entered the food chain.

It has been identified in recycled materials used as mulch and compost in gardens and sports ovals.

The revelations come as the Queensland Environment Department moves against two recycling firms that allegedly handled contaminated waste.

Meanwhile, a report tabled in the Senate found groups of the man-made chemicals were slow to break down in the environment and may pose cancer risks.

Some of the compounds first appeared in common household products from the 1950s including non-stick cookware, food packaging, fabrics, furniture and carpet stain protection. Some were used in industrial processing, Parliament has been told.

Alarms were raised when it was found in firefighting foams used by Queensland firemen and at military and civilian airports.

Firefighting foam used by the Defence Department. Picture: CRC Care
Firefighting foam used by the Defence Department. Picture: CRC Care

The toxic compounds identified by state and federal investigators were named as perfluorooctane sulfonate, known as PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, known as PFOA.

"Over time, these chemicals have worked their way through the soil to contaminate surface and groundwater, and have migrated into adjoining land areas," the Senate report says.

"The release of PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) into the environment is an emerging concern, because these chemicals are highly persistent, have been shown to be toxic to fish and some animals, and can accumulate in the bodies of fish, animals and people who come into contact with them."

It adds: "There is no conclusive evidence that exposure to PFAS causes cancer in humans. Some studies have shown a possible link between kidney and testicular cancers and PFAS. In these studies there was no overall increased risk of cancer. In these studies other potential cancer-causing factors such as smoking were not considered. There are also some studies that have not shown a link between cancers and PFAS exposure. Studies in rats have shown an increase in some types of thyroid cancer."

The compounds have been found in soil and water after tests at numerous Queensland airports, fire stations and ports at Amberley, Brisbane, Enoggera, Windsor, Annerley, Roma St, Charleville, Townsville, Cairns, Coolangatta, Mackay, Proserpine, Gladstone, Noosa, Airlie Beach, Dysart, Sarina, Rockhampton, Mount Isa, Maryborough, Caloundra, and the Sunshine Coast.

Testing is ongoing.

Water samples reveal a disturbing picture for many Queensland localities.
Water samples reveal a disturbing picture for many Queensland localities.

An ominous Queensland Health report says the toxins pose dangers to Queenslanders, especially those working in industries linked to firefighting, airports and shipping ports.

"Whether PFAS cause health problems in humans is currently unknown, but on current evidence the potential for adverse health effects cannot be excluded," that report says.

Low levels of PFOS and PFOA were found in prawns, crabs and squid collected in waters off Brisbane last year. Tests by Fisheries Queensland on April 22 revealed the toxins were below the "trigger levels" established by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand. However, some baitfish collected exceeded the trigger levels.

State Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch declined to be interviewed.

In a statement she admits some toxins found exceeded nationally agreed guidelines.

"We expect the Commonwealth to conduct whatever investigations are needed to determine the source and extent of any contamination, advise the public of these investigations and take whatever action is required to remediate lands affected by that contamination," she says.

"When it comes to PFAS contamination and clean-up, the polluter should pay.

"The general public is exposed to small amounts of PFAS in everyday life and is considered not to be at risk when PFAS levels are within nationally agreed consumption and recreation guidelines."

She adds: "Where these substances are detected at levels that exceed nationally agreed guidelines, the affected community is informed as a matter of priority and appropriate action is taken."

Collecting soil for contamination checks
Collecting soil for contamination checks

Enoch says the Environment Department issued a Queensland recycling firm, NuGrow, with an order to cease receiving "any liquid waste known to contain, or reasonably likely to contain, detectable PFAS contamination".

The Planning and Environment Court was told NuGrow accepted 940,000 litres of toxic stormwater from Amberley Airforce base.

Sludge is also alleged to have been removed from contaminated areas on Amberley and sent to NuGrow and other compost or soils makers in Queensland.

NuGrow denies wrongdoing and is seeking to have the order removed.

NuGrow has won environmental awards for recycling and disposes of everything from grease trap waste to spoiled milk, abattoir blood and rotten fruit. It has permits to use defunct coal mines at Swanbank near Ipswich for landfill.

Enoch says another Queensland firm, Wood Mulching Industries, has been served with a notice "to investigate the source of the PFAS contamination, the nature and extent of contamination and potential harm as a result of any PFAS contamination".

Testing continues around 56 airports in Australia. The Senate has heard contaminants are "ubiquitous" and are found in polar bears, in rainfall and water drawn from the mid-Pacific Ocean.

PFAS contaminants are even found in polar bears.
PFAS contaminants are even found in polar bears.

The Senate was also told of a 2012 University of Queensland study that found contaminants in Wivenhoe Dam.

It said: "PFCs (perfluorochemicals) were detected in Wivenhoe Dam but significant sources were detected in the side branches consistent with the urban catchment being a significant contributor to the load of PFCs received in Moreton Bay.

"Due to their chemical structure, PFOS and PFOA are chemically and biologically stable in the environment, resisting typical degradation processes.

"Their widespread use, environmental persistence and the ability to accumulate through food chains has resulted in the detection of trace levels of these PFCs in the blood of animals and the general human population globally when studied.

"People may be exposed to these compounds through the air, dust, food, water and various consumer products," the study said.

The federal Environmental Health Standing Committee warns the substances are troubling because they are slow to break down.

"They can persist for a long time and can travel long distances in water and air currents," a report says.

The Senate report says it wasn't until the early '80s that firefighting foams contained PFOS and PFOA.

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services says on its website the water held in tanks at fire stations has not been used for drinking or recreation.

Investigations at state and federal level continue.

Battle lines are already being drawn in the courts with actions over who was responsible for the pollution, and who is now responsible for ­cleaning it up.