Toxic fears: Farmers warned not to eat the beef they sell

Farmers near Esso's Longford gas plant and the East Sale RAAF Base in Gippsland have been warned not to eat meat, offal or dairy from their own livestock due to contamination by toxic chemicals but there are no restrictions on them selling such products.

Elevated levels of PFAS — per- and poly-fluoroalkyl chemicals historically used in firefighting foam — have been detected in 45 cattle and 45 sheep on three properties near Esso Longford, Victoria's chief veterinary officer Dr Charles Milne has confirmed to The Age.

Another cattle herd near the RAAF Base was also tested recently for PFAS but the results were not yet in, Dr Milne said.

The two sites are among about 90 locations around Australia where PFAS has been detected. At least 16 of those sites are in Victoria, The Age revealed this week.

The Country Fire Authority's Fiskville training academy west of Melbourne, shut down after a series of complaints about the incidence of cancer among some of its former staff, is so far the single biggest case of PFAS exposure in Victoria. Some livestock near Fiskville has been tested for PFAS too.

But Gippsland in the state's east has more confirmed sites where PFAS has been detected than any other region in the state.

Gippsland is renowned for its dairy, beef and fisheries, as well as natural attractions including unspoilt beaches and wetland areas of international significance.

A cow in Heart Morass wetlands. Photo: Joe Armao

A cow in Heart Morass wetlands. Photo: Joe Armao

However, its rich resources including coal and gas reserves mean it has for many years attracted some of the heaviest industry in Victoria.

PFAS has spread beyond the boundaries of both RAAF East Sale and Esso Longford, and has been detected on nearby properties as well as popular nearby hunting and fishing spots.

It has been measured in levels above Australian government guidelines in some groundwater, surface water, soils and sediment near both the Esso and RAAF sites, including at adjacent properties, in water sources that could be used for livestock.

Esso has fenced off some seven dams on properties near its Longford plant to stop livestock from drinking PFAS-contaminated water. Current government guidelines do not specify acceptable levels of PFAS for irrigation or livestock watering.

Such is the concern among nearby residents and farmers that some are considering a class action and have made plans to meet in the next few weeks to decide how to proceed. Many are, however, reluctant to speak publicly due to the effect that PFAS contamination could have on their livelihoods.

The potential risks to humans of consuming livestock exposed to PFAS depend on the likelihood of people eating sufficient quantities, Dr Milne said.

"If a beef animal goes into an abattoir, it will be sold to wherever and people use small parts of the animal," he said. "But if it is home-killed, then the family’s going to eat the whole animal."

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) says there is no "consistent evidence that these chemicals cause any adverse health effects in humans, including people highly exposed occupationally".

SAFEMEAT, the Australian body that oversees systems to ensure the delivery of safe and hygienic meat products to the marketplace, formed a PFAS working group and is maintaining a "watching brief" on contamination associated with the use of firefighting chemicals, it said in its 2016/17 annual report.

Ask about PFAS and its health effects and the chorus from state and Commonwealth governments and agencies is that there is no current evidence that PFAS exposure has a substantial impact on people's health.

However, as Fairfax Media's investigation has shown, numerous people around Australia and in the US have expressed serious fears about the health effects of PFAS exposure.

Some cattle farmers near the Oakey and Williamtown bases in Queensland and NSW have previously expressed fears they could be selling contaminated meat due to PFAS exposure.

Birds at the Heart Morass wetlands in Gippsland. The EPA has issued warnings about consumption of ducks and fish caught in the area. Photo: Joe Armao

Birds at the Heart Morass wetlands in Gippsland. The EPA has issued warnings about consumption of ducks and fish caught in the area. Photo: Joe Armao

This week a long-delayed US Department of Health report was released, showing that PFAS chemicals found in public water supplies around America are threatening human health at concentrations seven to 10 times lower than previously realised.

New York's Attorney-General has since launched legal action against five manufacturers of PFAS chemicals including 3M.

In the very state where 3M (formerly known as Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing) was founded, Fairfax Media revealed the deaths of five young people from cancer and a further 16 cancer survivors who attended Tartan Senior High School in Oakdale since 2002. All were diagnosed during their primary, middle or high school years, or within 10 years of graduating.

An Interim Human Health and Ecological Risk Assessment investigation into PFAS at RAAF Base East Sale, conducted by environmental consulting firm Senversa for the Defence department and released in December, found elevated risks of exposure to PFAS through a variety of avenues, including livestock on or in the vicinity of the base.

It lists "home consumption of meat, offal and milk raised on-site" and "public consumption of meat, offal and milk raised on-site" among those risks.

It also lists home consumption of duck meat and liver from birds hunted at the Heart Morass wetlands, even at low rates such as once a month, and of fish caught from the wetlands, among elevated risks of PFAS exposure.

In response to questions from The Age, a Defence spokeswoman said there had been "no precautionary advice issued by state authorities relating to the consumption of meat, offal and milk from livestock within the investigation area".

The spokeswoman said the final report is currently being prepared and will include further analysis of on-base livestock and will be released in 2018.

Other potential sources of PFAS identified in a Defence department study include West Sale Airport and industrial sites around Morwell, west of Sale, including former coal mines and coal fired power stations, where the firefighting foams were used, as well as Gippsland Water's Dutson Downs water treatment plant.

Dr Milne said Agriculture Victoria had tested livestock in "a number of sites" across Victoria for PFAS, mainly concentrated on areas where firefighting foam had been used.

In Gippsland its testing had concentrated on areas surrounding the East Sale and Longford plants.

"We’re aware of four properties in Gippsland where cattle and sheep have been blood tested," Dr Milne said.

"Three of those are cattle and sheep grazed in the vicinity of the Esso Longford plant. On those three farms a total of 45 cattle and 45 sheep have been tested. In those animals, measurable levels of PFAs were detected in the serum.

"We’re also aware of another herd of cattle, a fourth, just cattle, that have been blood sampled for PFAS. But we’re not aware of the results. The Department of Defence is leading that investigation."

Agriculture Victoria had purchased some of the PFAS-affected livestock in Gippsland to conduct its own longitudinal study on them, Dr Milne said, as there was little research in Australia or internationally about how long the chemicals linger in cattle, sheep and pigs.

Its initial tests on sheep showed PFAS levels dropped significantly within several weeks of them being moved to clear pasture, he said. He suspected that would take longer in cattle and pigs.

The EPA said it had only issued alerts in relation to hunting and fishing, not livestock.

"The only public health advice Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA) has provided to date, both publicly and to residents, is the advisory around eels, fish and ducks caught at Heart and Dowd Morass," a spokesman said.

Victorian Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said the EPA was working to identify and manage PFAS contamination sites across Victoria, "to protect the community and prevent any harms posed by this substance".

"Our government is also working with the Commonwealth and other states to develop a united response to PFAS contamination sites across the country,” Ms D'Ambrosio said.

With Carrie Fellner

This story first appeared on The Age