No early health report for Katherine waiting for results of PFAS blood check

Some Katherine residents say they should not have to wait another year to discover if they are contaminated.
Some Katherine residents say they should not have to wait another year to discover if they are contaminated.

Hundreds of Katherine, Northern Territory, residents will soon receive a windfall for property price losses through PFAS contamination but remain unsettled about possible health impacts from exposure to the chemicals.

Payments from the successful class action against the Defence Department are expect to flow in the next few months after Katherine received a total payout of $92.5 million from the court case.

Many are now turning their attention again to the possible health consequences of long exposure.

PFAS chemicals were in fire fighting foams used in training at the Tindal RAAF Base for 16 years from 1988.

Investigations have revealed the chemicals continue to leak from the base, in the groundwater under Katherine, to empty into the Katherine River.

While residents are today assured their drinking water is safe, for many years before 2017, it was not tested and the same precautions taken.

More than 600 residents volunteered to have their blood checked in one of the biggest health studies of its type ever conducted in Australia but are still waiting for the overall results.

The Federal Government in 2018 gave the Australian National University $2 million to study the health risks of living with PFAS, with free blood checks in Katherine, Oakey and Williamtown.

The ANU announced last month its study would now not be complete until next year because of COVID-19 delays.

While Katherine residents were presented with their individual results, it was up to the study to bring all those results together to determine the extent of the community exposure.

Initial results of blood testing done by Dr P.J. Spafford for the government found at least some Katherine residents with high concentrations of PFAS in their blood.

Some residents who took part in that study have contacted the Katherine Times concerned about the length of the delay.

Many have asked whether the ANU could produce a preliminary report to provide some basic health advice given the risks of PFAS being discovered in studies across the world.

The official Australian Government advice is to minimise exposure to PFAS as a precaution although it says there is no absolute proof they cause harm.

Prompted by those residents, Katherine Times questioned the ANU on the possibility of producing of preliminary report to allay people's fears, rather than have them waiting another year for results.

This response was forwarded by an ANU spokeswoman today:

"A key goal of the PFAS Epidemiological Study being conducted by the ANU is to compare blood serum PFAS concentrations in current and former residents and workers of the PFAS Management Sites of Williamtown, Oakey and Katherine to residents of three comparison communities," the spokeswoman said.

"This includes the comparison of health concerns and outcomes, psychological distress, and exposure-related factors.

"Epidemiological studies take some time to conduct, and unfortunately the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented the study team from continuing with some aspects of the study due to travel restrictions, demand on general practitioners and pathology services, restrictions on non-essential activities and re-assignment of the researchers to urgent work associated with the pandemic.

"In particular, this has affected the rollout of the cross-sectional survey and blood serum study components of the PFAS Epidemiological Study in the comparison communities, which will now take place in the second half of 2020.

"The Voluntary Blood Testing Program was a separate Australian Government initiative which provided eligible participants with free blood testing.

"This included a free pre-test consultation with an individual's GP, to outline the limitations of the test, and a free post-test consultation to discuss the test results as well as any health concerns the participant may have had.

"This program concluded on June 30. Results of testing carried out under the Australian Government's Voluntary Blood Testing Program were sent from the pathology laboratory directly to the relevant GP.

"Where individual consent was given to participate in the epidemiological study, results were also forwarded to the PFAS Health study team for inclusion in the study.

"If individuals have not received their test results, they should contact their GP to arrange a post-test consultation and to access their results.

"To further support affected communities, the Australian Government has funded dedicated mental health and counselling services for people in the PFAS investigation areas of Williamtown, Oakey and Katherine.

"Community members can access these support services by contacting the local primary health network, or by visiting a GP who can refer them to an appropriate service."

NT Primary Health Network said the current service provider under this funding is EASA, who can be contacted here or call 1800 193 123.

ANU principal investigator Professor Martyn Kirk has said Katherine needs a "comparison community".

He said ANU wants to find about 500 willing volunteers in Alice Springs to provide blood so it could be Katherine's "comparison".

He said the ANU was confident its study would be complete by the middle of 2021.

Foods Standards Australia New Zealand representatives told a Senate committee last month it would soon produce the 27th Australian Total Diet Study.

This study will provide an indication of the levels of PFAS chemicals in the general food supply to provide an estimate of the dietary exposure of the general Australian population to these chemicals.

Health advisories for Katherine remain in place to be cautious about eating fish from the river below the river, some bush foods and food like eggs where chickens are watered from bores.

There has been no update on these advisories for some time.

This story No early health advice for those waiting for PFAS exposure results first appeared on Katherine Times.