Erin Brockovich's bid to help Aussies hurt by toxic chemical
For the first time in his career, Dr PJ Spafford can’t help his patients, his family or even himself.
The GP in the Northern Territory town of Katherine has performed blood tests on more than 370 locals, looking for answers as to how and why their bodies are filled with toxic chemicals.
“We sit here with this substance that takes over 50 years to be eliminated from our bodies, hoping that research doesn’t show a problem,” Dr Spafford told A Current Affair.
“I don’t have an answer and we’re always told, 'Don’t do tests unless you know what you’re going to do with the answer'.”
Like in many Australian communities, Dr Spafford said residents in Katherine have recorded off-the-chart levels of chemicals known as per and poly fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in their blood.
The town’s RAAF base is one of some 90 sites across the country where the toxins were used in firefighting foam for decades. The foam was washed down drains and waterways, contaminating local water supplies, leaving surrounding homes unsaleable.
Dr Spafford said his patients’ levels are up to 40 times higher than what’s considered safe. And in Williamtown near Newcastle, close to 40 people living on the same road near the RAAF base have contracted cancer.
“I have people who really do live with that anxiety that they’ve got something in their body they can’t get out,” Dr Spafford said.
Fourteen thousand kilometres away, in the US town of Oakdale, Minnesota, Katelyn O’Connell can relate to that helpless feeling. She grew up near three sites where the toxins were dumped and was diagnosed with leukemia at just 12 years old.
“It was a death sentence,” she said.
She’s one of more than 20 students who contracted cancer, all attending Tartan High School. The school is just blocks from the global headquarters of 3M, a company that manufactured PFAS for use in firefighting foam.
“We didn’t deserve it, we didn’t deserve to have our lives cut short or taken away from us,” Katelyn said.
Katelyn’s friend, Derek Lowen, suffered a brain tumour when he was a 14-year-old student at Tartan.
“I just figured, 'My time’s up, I’m done, so be it', I guess, 'There’s nothing I can do',” he said.
“No one should feel safe – not in this area.”
In 2010, the state of Minnesota filed a $5 billion lawsuit against 3M for contaminating its groundwater. But earlier this year, the state agreed to settle; 3M would escape liability and instead pay the state $850 million for clean water projects.
“Human life is worth far more than $850 million,” Derek said.
It’s a fight that’s fast gaining momentum around the world, with environmental crusader, Erin Brockovich, now working with Shine Lawyers on a class action against the Australian government.
“It’s frustrating because even our government sent notices to your government, back in the late 90s – ‘keep your eye out’ – so it’s been like a kept secret and that’s the thing that frustrates me the most,” Ms Brockovich said.
For the Australian government, it’s a fine line between admitting responsibility and accepting liability. A Senate committee is accepting public submissions for an inquiry into the management of PFAS contamination in and around defence bases.
“We have every desire – and we should – to speak out and say,” Ms Brockovich said.
“This isn’t okay.”