PFAS contamination near Richmond Air Base prompts egg and meat consumption warning

PFAS contamination near Richmond Air Base prompts egg and meat consumption warning
Chemical risk at Richmond sparks warning on meat, eggs and fish
Residents near the Richmond Air Base should reduce their intake of locally caught fish and locally grown eggs and red meat because of PFAS contamination, the Department of Defence has warned.

The Air Force started phasing out the use of the firefighting chemical in 2004 and is now undertaking a national review of its impact on the environment around bases.

In June, the Air Force announced a 10-square-kilometre plume of PFAS contamination had been found in the ground water below and around the Richmond Air Base, 50 kilometres north-west of Sydneys CBD.

Twenty-five surface water test sites were also found to have had PFAS contamination above safe drinking levels, including Rickabys Creek and Bakers Lagoon. It was also found at low levels in the Hawkesbury River.

At the time, the assistant secretary of PFAS Investigation and Management, Luke McLeod, said there was no need to advise anyone to not use or swim in the water, and no-one used the surface water for drinking.

However, the Human Health Risk Assessment released today says people living in the area should limit their intake of locally grown eggs and red meat, and locally caught fish to reduce their exposure to the chemical.

The report said people living in the investigation area around the air base should not eat more than 24 eggs per month, 50 serves of red meat per month or 12 servings of fin fish per month that have been grown or caught locally. That amount is smaller for children.

“Each chook egg had a different level of PFAS in it. Some of them were above the level that you should eat and some of them were considered to be edible by adults,” Ms Pickford said.

“I was really distressed, particularly because Id been feeding them to my grandchildren — one of whom is under six.

“I just wish they would be honest and open with the public and say, look, we made a mistake and were going to do something about it.”

An ecological risk assessment also released today found unacceptable risks of contamination for animals and the environment on and around the base.

The report says there is moderate to high potential for exposure to PFAS for animals and birds on the Richmond base, while the risk is moderate at nearby Bakers Lagoon.

There is also some exposure risk for animals and birds in the Hawkesbury River, the assessment found.

According to NSW Health, PFAS does not break down in the environment and can accumulate and persist for a long time in humans and the environment.

An independent health panel told the Government earlier this year that while health effects could be ruled out, there was limited or no evidence to link exposure to PFAS chemicals with human disease.

They noted that scientific studies showed a “possible link” with an increase risk of testicular and kidney cancer.

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People living on toxic land surrounding the Richmond RAAF Base have been warned the consumption of large amounts of locally-grown meat, eggs and fish could pose an unacceptable risk to their health.

But levels of the potentially carcinogenic per- and poly-fluoroalkyl [PFAS] chemicals in livestock reared in the area and sold to the general public remains an area of "uncertainty", according to risk assessments released by Defence on Wednesday.

The reports, by consultancy AECOM, examined the risks to humans and wildlife from the base's use of firefighting foams containing PFAS over several decades.

Joanna Pickford with her hen Goosie Loosie at her home in East Richmond. PFAS contamination has been found in all three of her chickens eggs. Credit:Sarah Falson

Overseas studies have linked the chemicals – historically manufactured by 3M – to a slew of health effects including immune suppression and kidney dysfunction.

The report found residents who eat large amounts of locally-grown food should strive to reduce their intake of meat, fish and eggs, where animals have had contact with contaminated water.

Separately, an ecological risk assessment found the pollutants posed a "potentially unacceptable" risk to plants and animals in the area.

Testing has detected PFAS in eggs on the property of East Richmond resident Joanna Pickford. She offered a basket containing dozens of the toxic eggs to Defence officials before a community meeting on Wednesday evening.

But Ms Pickford holds serious concerns about the government's decision to allow farmers to continue to sell contaminated produce on the open market, on the basis that consumers purchase food from a wide variety of locations.

"They keep going it's highly unlikely you would buy meat from the same place twice," she said.

"And I'm thinking this is the Hawkesbury, how would I know that? This is the food bowl of Sydney isn't it?

"It's like saying smoke one cigarette, you'll be fine, but don't smoke more than one because you'll get cancer."

Member for Macquarie Susan Templeman described the findings as "concerning" but welcomed confirmation that local fruits and vegetables are not likely to be affected.

"This is a report we should have had long before now," the Labor MP said. "Now it is time for Defence to outline what action they will be taking to remediate the contamination."

The report found a "low and acceptable" risk to horticultural, agricultural and council workers in the area, residents who do not consume home-grown eggs and people from outside the area who use local waterways for recreation.

However, it was acknowledged that the absence of any blood test results for humans and livestock was a "data gap" in the investigation.

Official reassurances about contaminated dust and soil were called into question last year when blood testing commissioned as part of a class action near Newcastle found a consistent relationship between residents who worked the land and high blood contamination levels.

The AECOM report identified a risk from consuming groundwater, but noted it was not aware of any residents who used it as a drinking water source.

Bakers Lagoon was a contamination hotspot and it was recommended Defence limit the release of contaminated water from its sewage treatment plant into the lagoon.