When Craig Anderson raised concerns about PFAS contamination at the Gold Coast Airport, he says he was told the levels were so low the water would be safe to drink.
The plumber spent about 18 months wading through groundwater to lay pipes for a major airport extension, starting in 2016 and finishing in August last year.
“Our hands were saturated in it, our clothes were saturated in it, that was every day,” he said.
That was a year after experts from the University of Queensland provided a report to the federal aviation agency, Airservices Australia, detailing the measures that needed to be taken to prevent exposure to workers on contaminated airport sites.
Airservices said the report was shared with the Gold Coast Airport in early 2016.
“UQ’s report concluded there is no increased risk of exposure if staff wear appropriate protective personal equipment and practice good hygiene,” the agency said in a statement.
Workers told the ABC they worked in groundwater and were not told about PFAS contamination. (Supplied)
The report did say workers should be told about the chemicals and how they spread, should avoid direct contact with contaminated materials, that they should be told to thoroughly wash their hands, that they should not take breaks on site and their clothes should be washed at work and not taken home.
Mr Anderson said he had gloves but they were not waterproof, and he was told to wash his hands, but the other steps were not explained to him.
“Those clothes went home, our wives had to clean them, they went through the washing machines,” he said.
He is upset they were not given more information about the contamination.
“Quite cranky actually, you just feel like you were used and abused,” he said.
“We like to go to work and we all like to go home, and we like to work safe.”
He had a blood test that he said showed borderline levels, but said he was concerned for the 70 other people who worked on the site.
The ABC was told by Dr Sid O’Toole — who did blood testing on some of the workers — that three people from the site tested with elevated levels of PFAS.
Dr O’Toole said two of those people had their levels drop while working at the airport.
The ABC has spoken to six workers who were at the airport.
Three other plumbers told the ABC they worked in groundwater and soil and were not told about PFAS contamination at the airport before they started working.
Aboriginal stakeholder worker, Gypsy-Lee Clarke, worked on site for a month overseeing cultural sites.
She worked with her grandmother, Jackie McDonald, who had a blood test showing she had high levels of PFAS chemicals in her system.
Ms Clarke’s levels were found to be in the normal range for her age, but she said she is also upset about how the issue was managed.
“They have got enough information to be worried that there is a concern to do with our health and they are not taking that as a serious issue,” she said.
‘I would be very concerned’
The workers were employed by construction company Fulton Hogan, not Airservices during the project for the Gold Coast Airport.
The ABC contacted Fulton Hogan, but has not yet had a comment from the company.
Airservices said it shares “all site investigation results with the airport and both Commonwealth and state governments”.
University of NSW Associate Professor Robert Niven, an engineer who studies PFAS contamination, described the soil and water contamination levels listed in the 2015 Airservices reports as “significantly high”.
“They’re in excess of the soil and groundwater criteria for human health for a number of different criteria for contaminated sites,” he said.
Dr Niven said he is concerned by the accounts given by the Gold Coast workers.
“If what they have said is correct, then they have clearly been exposed to PFAS contamination, so if I were in their situation I would be very concerned, I would seek medical advice.”
He said there is usually a health and safety plan for work on contaminated sites.
Dr Niven also raised concerns about a site investigation by Airservices that examined PFAS contamination at the Gold Coast Airport in 2016.
“I would say that they have tried to draw a fairly long bow with some fairly limited sampling,” he said.
“Statements to the effect ‘there is limited concern’, or ‘limited contamination present’ … the numbers I have seen from those reports suggests there is significant contamination present.”
He said the airport needed a detailed contamination investigation.
The Gold Coast Airport said PFAS management was factored into relevant safety procedures for employees and contractors.
“In 2016, management of PFAS presence on-airport was being undertaken in line with the Guideline for Environmental Management (GEM), issued by the Federal Government,” an airport spokesperson said.
“In regards to Project LIFT works, a human health risk assessment was performed by an external contractor and was captured within the project’s Construction Environment Management Plan. This assessment concluded that the risk of exposure on that project footprint was low.”