On the evening of 10 April, a hose in the Qantas hangar at Brisbane Airport leaked approximately 5000L of the 22,000L spilt of firefighting chemicals into nearby waterways. The foamy spill made its way from the airport to the nearby Boggy Creek via a drain, then to the lower reaches of the Brisbane River and north to Nudgee Beach and Shorncliffe dispersed by the tides and wind. On 28 April, Toxfree a company that cleans spills, then spilt another 850L of a similar chemical substance and 500L went off site into a neighboring public reserve and local waterways.
Testing of nearby Boggy Creek on 11 April over 12 hours after the spill revealed the presence of two dangerous toxins, PFOA and PFOS. PFOA was found at over 50 times the recreational water quality limit, and PFOS more than double. Dr Andrew Jeremijenko from The National Toxic Network believes these poisons persist in the environment and will bio-accumulate up the food chain for decades. He states,
"Dr Jeanette Young from Queensland Health is reported as saying that '...there is currently no consistent evidence that PFOA exposure causes adverse health harm in humans'.
"This assertion is simply not true. PFOS/PFOA are bad chemicals and that is why Queensland has banned them.
"PFOA meets the criteria for a PBT substance, that is one that is persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic, according to Article 57 (d) of REACH, the key chemical control regulation in the European Union."
Visions of dead fish floating in the foam followed by fish and prawns with higher levels of PFOA and PFOS are just the beginning. Many forms of life including marine animals, birds and humans may be affected by this spill in the long term. Nudgee Beach, a popular nearby bayside suburb and the Boondall wetlands - a RAMSAR listed bird sanctuary were both impacted by this spill.
"The German Human Biomonitoring Commission advises that effects on fertility, pregnancy, gestational diabetes, lipid metabolism, immunity after vaccination, immunological development and thyroid metabolism are well proven, relevant and significantly associated with exposure to PFOA and/or PFOS," Dr Andrew Jeremijenko said.
The QLD Health Department's response has been suggested as negligent. The media statement was released four days after the event on Good Friday - not a good day for public health messages. As waters were contaminated during school holidays, people were swimming and eating fish and prawns for four days before the notification and continued to do so over the Easter long weekend.
QLD Health recommended to not eat the fish, but then mixed the message by stating there was no consistent evidence of health effects from these chemicals. QLD Health did not state:
• PFOS was identified (they only told the public about PFOA);
• Both PFOA and PFOS were above the recreational water quality limit;
• These chemicals are significantly associated with testicular cancer, kidney cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis amongst other health effects;
• The name of the chemical spilt to GPs, despite advising the public to call 13Health or see their GPs if they were concerned about their exposure.
In the US, there have been patients with kidney cancers and testicular cancers awarded millions of dollars in compensation from companies that polluted water with PFOA. This year, a class action was settled in the US for $671 million due to PFOA contamination. The health department should not minimise the risks of health effects due to concerns about corporate or government liability.
At Oakey in Queensland, and Williamstown in New South Wales, there are now class actions against the government due to firefighting foam spills and the persistence of these chemicals in the water. Indeed, high PFOA and PFOS levels have now been found near military bases and a number of commercial airports around Australia.
Commercial fishing in the affected area will be severely impacted by the spill, and it's likely that the chemicals could bio-accumulate up the food chain and be persistent in the river for decades. This could mean that eating fish from this area may not be safe for many years. The Brisbane River mouth area has a high output of several estuarine species, including king threadfin, mulloway, bream, snapper and prawns, which are also popular targets for recreational anglers as well. Consumption of these species may be harmful.
While the commercial fishing boats are considering legal action over this man-made environmental disaster, the public are still being misled by the Health department. They continue to state that there is no consistent evidence despite Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) publicly highlighting the dangers of these chemicals and the scientific research linking these persistent organic pollutants (POPs) with severe health effects in multiple species including humans.
DEA have recommended:
• The Commonwealth ban these chemicals as Queensland has done;
• Qantas stop using these chemicals and replace them with safer alternatives;
• Qantas pays compensation or is fined for the damage that can't be fixed.
We can't undo the Qantas spill, but we can change what happens in the future to protect the public and our precious natural resources and marine life from further environmental disasters.