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Estimates: Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee: Infrastructure and Regional Development Portfolio: Airservices Australia

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 21 Mar 2018

Monday, 26 February

PFAS contamination

Senator RHIANNON: Returning to the contamination issue, Ms Bennetts, I think you said you've been dealing with this for about 15 years?

Ms Bennetts: That's correct.

Senator RHIANNON: That takes us back to around 2002 or 2003, I guess. There were a lot of reports at the time, after the developments in the United States where 3M agreed with the US Environmental Protection Agency that it should stop manufacturing PFAS. 3M and DuPont were involved. Is that when Airservices Australia became alert to a potential problem here?

Ms Bennetts: Yes, it was around that time.

Senator RHIANNON: You made a comment—I didn't get the words down exactly—but it was something like, 'If there are any human health impacts from this.' You seemed to be querying if there were health impacts. Did I hear that correctly?

Ms Bennetts: Yes, there are no known human health impacts at this point in time.

Senator RHIANNON: I wonder why you make those comments. We hear that regularly from the Department of Defence as well. In September 2016 the United Nations Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee— which Australia is a member of—unanimously agreed on: … adverse health effects such as elevated cholesterol levels, altered reproductive/developmental effects, endocrine disruption, impaired neurodevelopment, as well as increased risk of cancer associated with PFOA exposure in humans … and that scientific data have demonstrated PFOA-mediated immunotoxicity, primarily suppression of antibody response, in humans. That sounds really serious, so I wonder why you are so emphatic in saying there are no proven health impacts.

Mr Harfield: We aren't human health experts, so we rely very much on the Commonwealth Department of Health and their advice. The Commonwealth Department of Health states: In humans, there is no consistent evidence that PFAS cause any specific illnesses, including cancer. They go on to say: Individual blood testing for PFAS is not currently helpful to manage any current medical problems or to predict future health problems. All Australians are expected to have some amount of PFAS in their blood due to the wide range of things it has been used for. A broad range of levels would be expected in all communities due to background exposure. There is no level of PFAS that is considered ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’. However, even though we follow that advice, as Ms Bennetts mentioned earlier, in about 2009 with the University of Queensland we conducted voluntary blood testing, which we assessed. We are continuing to work on the health and wellbeing and monitoring of our firefighters. We currently have a taskforce that is scoping out a further study with the University of Queensland that also includes four of our operational firefighters, a union representative and an emergency vehicle technician, so that we can continue to monitor it.

Senator RHIANNON: I want to move onto that issue about monitoring your workers. I understand that they are given three-year operational fitness medical reviews. Is that the case?

Ms Bennetts: That's correct.

Senator RHIANNON: Does that include an examination of their possible levels of contamination?

Ms Bennetts: It doesn't at this point in time. The only testing they have been offered thus far is the—

Senator RHIANNON: Considering you have known about this problem for 15 years, why aren't you testing the contamination levels in your firefighters and your workers?

Ms Bennetts: We know that they have PFAS in their blood; everyone does. And we know that those who have engaged with the original foam that we had that had PFOS in it will have higher levels of contamination than those who haven't worked with it before. At this point in time, as Mr Harfield just said, what we need to understand is what those levels mean in terms of their health. We are working closely with the Commonwealth Department of Health to better understand that.

Senator RHIANNON: The training academy in Fiskville was closed. Are there other facilities, including training facilities, that have similar levels of contamination to what was found at Fiskville and that have also been closed?

Ms Bennetts: I'd have to take that on notice, Senator—in relation to the levels at that facility and our understanding of them.

Senator RHIANNON: Clearly, the union are working for the health and safety of their workers and their members. Could you just go through how you're working with the union please.

Ms Bennetts: Yes. Mr Harfield just referred to the most recent working group we have, and the union have a representative on that group. They have, in fact, done extensive research in this regard, as you alluded to, and that's proving very valuable in that forum. That working group is presently, led by the University of Queensland, scoping the health study that I referred to earlier.

Senator RHIANNON: This is just so serious for people's lives: the uncertainty and the stress that it's causing, partly, being frank about it, because sometimes the departments aren't very forthcoming. I haven't got all the details of how you're undertaking this, but at all the levels of work on this contamination are you involving the union as members of the board? Partly why I'm asking that is that you've only given one example. It sounds like you've got one union rep on one board.

Ms Bennetts: That's not the case. We certainly fulfil all of our consultation obligations with the UFU. We meet, starting at my level and with their secretary, at least on a scheduled biannual basis. The latest one was just a week or two ago.

Senator RHIANNON: Biannual as in twice a year?

Ms Bennetts: It's a biannual scheduled meeting to talk through all issues associated with the relationship between ourselves and the union. Then we have a series of working groups—off the top of my head I think it's around five or six at this point in time—which the UFU are formally represented on, and there's much more correspondence than that between the two parties, as you'd expect.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you take on notice to detail what you've just set out—the names of those committees and how often they've been meeting, and, with the biannual meetings, when those biannual meetings started. You did use the word 'scheduled', which made me wonder if they are actually occurring, so could you provide dates on those please.

Ms Bennetts: Certainly.

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