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United Nations to decide on ban for toxic chemical linked to contamination at Williamtown RAAF base
By Jackson Vernon
A United Nations group will soon begin investigating whether to include a toxic chemical, linked to a contamination case involving the RAAF Base in Williamtown, on a global list potentially banning its use.
The chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is a component of firefighting foam which was used at Defence Force and fire service bases around Australia for decades.
The New South Wales Government announced two inquiries after it emerged the chemical had turned up in groundwater and fish species in the Williamtown and Fullerton Cove areas surrounding the Williamtown RAAF Base, north of Newcastle.
The Stockholm Convention is a global treaty that was set up 10 years ago with the aim of protecting human health and the environment by eradicating toxic chemicals known as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).
If a chemical is added to the convention it can mean a worldwide ban on its use or production, or provisions can be made for countries to gradually fade out its use.
Australia is among 30 countries meeting in Italy this October, where a nomination by the European Union for the inclusion of PFOA in the convention will be discussed.
Australian Mariann Lloyd Smith is a senior advisor to the National Toxic Network and is part of an NGO advising the UN panel.
She said PFOA was a dangerous substance.
"PFOA now contaminates all environments, all ecosystems across the globe," Dr Lloyd-Smith said.
"It's incredibly toxic, you find it in human blood, in breast milk, even in a baby's umbilical cord blood. A baby is born with PFOA.
"It's shown to alter our endocrine system, affect our sex hormones, it's a carcinogen, it's a reproductive toxin and as we say, incredibly persistent and so persistent, that we haven't actually been able to work out whether it ever breaks down.
"So it's likely what we use today will be with us for all time so it's a very important chemical to get rid of out of the global trade."
Two other similar contamination cases linked to the firefighting foam are ongoing in Australia, including the Oakey Defence Base in Queensland and the Country Fire Association training base in Fiskville in Victoria.
The latter has since been closed down and a government-commissioned report released earlier this year pointed to a cancer cluster.
Australia could become 'dumping ground' if convention not ratified
Another chemical in the foam called perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) was added to the Stockholm Convention in 2009.
But according to Doctor Lloyd-Smith, Australia has been slow to outlaw it.
"Australia has not ratified that and has not banned that chemical which again is so foolish when we look at what has happened with PFOS [and] now again in firefighting foams and again we're seeing the PFOS contamination of groundwater right across the country," she said.
"A lot of other countries have taken the step to say 'we will not use this chemical', we will not allow it to be introduced into products and bought into our country.
"So if you can imagine if you've got a lot of other countries already doing that and you have a handful of countries saying we haven't ratified it, if it gets into our country we're not going to do anything about it, you can see that the country will become the dumping ground for products with these chemicals in them."
Residents say they were 'left to be exposed'
Kim-leeanne King has lived next door to the Williamtown RAAF base on a rural property for most of her life.
She is worried about what effect the contamination might have on her and her family's health.
But she has welcomed moves by the UN to look into the toxic substance, and potentially save other communities around the world.
"Any outcome that can come out from it going to this board will be wonderful and it only ensures the future safety of the residents in these areas as well as possibly uncovering future health effects that are going to happen to people as a result of being exposed to these products," Ms King said.
It emerged earlier this month that the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority (EPA) knew of the contamination two years ago but did not alert residents.
Ms King said that was a disgrace.
"The inaction of our government bodies to act on this much earlier, three years and they did nothing," she said.
"They let people carry on with their everyday lives and did nothing about it, they didn't inform them but secretly they were doing testing of their bores and soil samples and everybody else was just left to be exposed to the environment and where they live and potentially being contaminated.
"It just goes to show what toothless tigers our regulatory bodies are.
"They do not act and they just take everything with the 'she'll be right' attitude and that is not acceptable in today's standards by any means given the potential that these products cause cancer."
The ABC has contacted the Environment Minister Greg Hunt for comment.