ENVIRONMENTAL activist Erin Brockovich isn’t shocked easily.
The woman made famous by Julia Roberts’ Oscar-winning performance in the 2000 film about water contamination in Hinkley, California, deals with catastrophe everyday.
Since she famously won that $US333 million lawsuit in 1993 against energy corporation Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), Brockovich, 56, has devoted her time and public profile to similar class action cases around the world.
(She’s the president of her own law firm, consults for another firm in New York and has worked with Australia’s Shine Lawyers since 2008).
There are hundreds of “Hinkleys” — towns where the groundwater is contaminated with dangerous levels of toxic chemicals — all over the globe, including more than 30 in Australia, Brockovich says.
She’s currently in Australia to lend her celebrity power to our own environmental disaster in Oakey, Queensland.
Oakey residents, like those in Williamtown, NSW, have been informed that toxic chemicals used in firefighting foam at a nearby defence force base have infected their local water supply.
The two chemicals used — PFOS and PFOA — are deadly.
Both have been linked to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and medically diagnosed high cholesterol in humans.
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Julia Roberts in ‘Erin Brockovich’, and the real Erin Brockovich in her home in California in March 2000. Picture: Damian Dovarganes/AP
Julia Roberts in ‘Erin Brockovich’, and the real Erin Brockovich in her home in California in March 2000. Picture: Damian Dovarganes/APSource:Supplied
Erin Brockovich starring Julia Roberts.
Erin Brockovich starring Julia Roberts.Source:Supplied
Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) have been used to make firefighting foams in Australia for nearly 50 years, because they are so good at putting out liquid fuel fires. They are still regarded as the most effective way to fight fires where lives are at risk, as could occur in an air crash.
But PFOS and PFOA are not biodegradable, can easily move from soil to groundwater and have a half-life in the human body of more than 20 years.
More than 200 Oakey residents are considering a class-action lawsuit against the Federal Government, after a scathing Senate committee found it had known the firefighting foam was toxic as early as 2003.
Brockovich met with Oakey residents during a community meeting last week and told them the levels of PFOS and PFOA in their water are “very concerning”.
In May, the US Environmental Protection Agency issued a drinking water health guideline of 70 parts per trillion for human exposure to PFOA and PFOS.
“There’s a well out in Oakey that has levels as high as 31 parts per million,” Brockovich told news.com.au.
“We’ve never seen anything like that in the States. That’s very concerning. That’s very high,” she said.
Brockovich says Oakey and Williamtown are just the tip of the iceberg, and that there could be more than 30 similar contamination cases around the country.
“You are looking at a potential national issue,” she said. “It’s in and around all your airports and your air bases. You’re not dealing with a one off situation with Oakey.”
While residents in most first world countries would be shocked to learn their water supply is not safe, Brockovich says we need to wake up.
“I tell people ‘Superman is not coming’. We think there’s some entity out there that is just magically going to save us. These things are real.”
Residents at a community meeting in Oakey, Queensland. Picture: Tara Croser.
Residents at a community meeting in Oakey, Queensland. Picture: Tara Croser.Source:News Corp Australia
Environmental scientist Professor Mark Taylor, who conducted an independent review of the contamination in Willamtown, says 38 sites around the country could be affected.
“They’re mostly around airports and military bases,” he told news.com.au. “It was all in the Senate inquiry, this is all in the public domain.”
The Senate inquiry found it is “likely [there are] to be many other military and civilian airports, firefighting training sites … which will have legacy PFOS/PFOA contamination through the use of firefighting foams.”
The Australian Defence Force is conducting environmental investigations across five army sites — RAAF Base Williamtown, Army Aviation Centre Oakey, RAAF Base East Sale, HMAS Albatross and RAAF Base Pearce — and has commenced preliminary testing at 13 other sites across the country.
The ADF has admitted to using both PFOS and PFOA at multiple defence locations.
“PFOS and PFOA … were active ingredients in aqueous film forming foam used extensively worldwide, and within Australia, from the 1970s by both civilian and military authorities, due to its effectiveness in extinguishing liquid fuel fires,” the ADF says on its website.
“From 2004, Defence started phasing out its use of old foams. The product currently used by Defence is a more environmentally safe product.”
Erin Brockovich speaking with residents after a community meeting in Oakey, Queensland. Picture: Tara Croser
Erin Brockovich speaking with residents after a community meeting in Oakey, Queensland. Picture: Tara CroserSource:News Corp Australia
Prof Taylor says residents in Oakey and Williamtown are presenting with “higher levels of industrial chemicals than have ordinarily been found” in human risk assessments.
Scientists know that PFOS and PFOA can be damaging, but there’s not enough research to know what level is acceptable for drinking water.
“What we don’t know is what level is deemed to be safe for humans,” Prof Taylor said. “But we know that doing nothing is not an option.”
Harvard University has conducted some research about the impact of PFOS and PFOA on pregnant women and their children. The results are concerning.
“We are particularly worried about the risk of miscarriage, inhibition of lactation (thus preventing women from breastfeeding as long as they wish), and adverse effects on the immune system in children so that they do not respond appropriately to vaccines,” said Harvard environmental scientist Philippe Grandjean, who has advised the World Health Organisation and lawyers involved in the Oakey class action.
“Both PFOA and PFOS stay in the body for years and it is therefore an urgent matter to control the contamination to prevent any further exposures and allow exposed populations to start eliminating the compounds from the body.”
Erin Brockovich says she has personally been affected by toxic chemicals hidden in Hinkley, California’s water supply. Picture: Mark Calleja
Erin Brockovich says she has personally been affected by toxic chemicals hidden in Hinkley, California’s water supply. Picture: Mark CallejaSource:News Corp Australia
Brockovich has ongoing health issues from being exposed to dangerous chemicals.
“I was definitely exposed in Hinkley and I’ve been exposed several times since then,” she said.
“I have a cell displacement in my nose, which we monitor every six months. Hexavalent chromium [the chemical in Hinkley’s water] is highly associated with cancer, so you just watch it.”
For now, the Turnbull government has committed $55 million for blood testing and an epidemiological study in Williamtown.
The ADF is currently finalising its human health risk assessment and the ecological risk assessments of Oakey, which are due to be presented in a few weeks, a spokesman told news.com.au.
“The government will further consider the matter of property acquisition once interim health reference values have been established and detailed environmental investigations are concluded,” he said in a statement.
Brockovich says it’s time Australians sat up and took notice of this national environmental disaster.
“We need to find other ways of disposing our waste and stop treating the water as some big dumping ground,” she said.
“We’ve got to start making this association between the destruction of our environment and the destruction of our health, our water, our land and our livelihoods. We’re going to implode or either be better.”
– with Charis Chang