Ron Holzhimer is one 5,000 residents affected at Sevensson Heights. (ABC News: Johanna Marie)
Bundaberg residents affected by a contaminated water supply say they are worried, despite being assured the risk to their health is low.
The local council has switched off drinking water from a reservoir in the suburb of Svensson Heights after unsafe levels of potentially toxic PFAS chemicals were confirmed in the water.
The group of chemicals was used in firefighting foam on Defence bases across the country.
Svensson Heights is located near the city’s airport, a former RAAF station.
What are PFAS chemicals?
- Officially known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances
- They have industrial uses including in firefighting foams
- Global concern about the chemicals because they do not degrade in the environment and accumulate in wildlife and people, mainly through drinking water
Since at least 2000, scientific research has linked these chemicals to a range of human diseases, though the Federal Government’s formal health advice says there is “no consistent evidence” they cause specific illnesses.
A Four Corners report last year revealed Defence was warned as far back as 1987 that the foam product must not enter the environment.
“Even though they were saying on the news it is a very low level, [I] still have concerns,” Svensson Heights resident Nadine Russell said.
“You think that it’s safe when you drink it … and then they come out and say something like that, which is worrying.”
There is still some confusion in the community about what exactly the contamination means.
The Queensland Government is offering concerned residents free blood tests through their local GPs.
Ron Holzheimer, who has lived in Svensson Heights for seven years, found out about the contamination on TV.
“We haven’t heard from council at all, the first we heard of it was on the news,” he said.
“No-one has been around or phoned or anything.”
The zone of Svensson Heights affected by heightened levels of PFAS in the water supply. (Supplied: Bundaberg Regional Council)
Mr Holzheimer said his partner’s grandchildren often visit.
“They quite often come here after school and they drink the water as well, so yeah I guess they should all be tested just to make sure,” he said.
“We should go and get tested and just check to make sure that we haven’t got any high levels of the contaminant,” he said.
Another local resident, Lachlan Robinson, said he had never heard of PFAS before.
“I thought our water was pretty clean so this is the first time I’ve heard of it,” he said.
Nadine Russell says she will take up the offer of a free blood test. (ABC News: Johanna Marie)
Queensland Health is assuring residents the health risks are very low.
The Australian Department of Health website said, “the release of PFAS into the environment is an emerging concern … however, there is currently no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse human health effects”.
Ms Russell said she would take up the Government’s offer of a free blood test.
“Just to double check, make sure everything is all good, ” she said.
Accusations Government kept quiet
Queensland Health said its specialist health experts were notified of a potential PFAS contamination by Bundaberg Council last week.
A spokesman said further testing was done this week, and confirmation of the high levels was only received late on Thursday.
The public was notified the next day.
Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington accused the Government of not making the announcement soon enough and hiding “under the cover of the Commonwealth Games”.
“If the Queensland Government had this information for a week, they should have released it. They should have been upfront and honest with the people of Bundaberg,” she said.
“The people of Bundaberg have the right to know that there is a potential contamination issue with their water.
“The buck stops with the State Government.”
Council said it had no reason to be concerned about its water supply, but passed on earlier unofficial test results from August which showed very low, safe levels of the chemical.
A spokesman for the council said Queensland Health then reanalysed the results and decided to retest the site.