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Cancer-Causing Chemicals Detected in North Richmond Water

Jun 12, 2024

Hawkesbury City Council has stated it is not responsible for informing residents about the cancer-causing chemicals found at dangerous levels in the North Richmond water supply.

“As the provider of drinking water services to Hawkesbury residents, Sydney Water is the appropriate organisation to provide relevant information and education to residents regarding PFAS and the quality of its water,” a spokesperson for Hawkesbury City Council told the Hawkesbury Post.

An investigation by the Sydney Morning Herald published this week found that carcinogenic chemicals – perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)

(PFOS and PFOA are part of a group of man-made chemicals commonly known as PFAS) are present in drinking water across parts of Sydney, Newcastle, Canberra, Victoria, Queensland, Rottnest Island, and Norfolk Island. This has prompted urgent calls for widespread testing of Australia’s drinking water. Currently, North Richmond is the only site undergoing testing for PFAS.

Despite assurances from the Premier, Health Minister, and Chief Medical Officer that the water supply is safe, the National Health and Medical Research Council is reviewing its guidelines for PFAS. This follows recent conclusions from both the US and the World Health Organisation that PFAS causes cancer and no level is safe. In Australia, PFOA is permitted in tap water at 140 times the maximum level allowed in the US.

Health experts are now calling for urgent, widespread testing of Australia’s drinking water following the revelation. 

The SMH analysis found dangerous chemicals in the drinking water of up to 1.8 million Australians, including North Richmond. Testing in the past year revealed that North Richmond’s drinking water contained some of the highest levels of PFOA contamination in Australia (5.17 ppt to 9.66 ppt), well above the US limit of 4 ppt. PFOS levels were also high at 1.46 ppt to 3.32 ppt. Australia’s standards fall significantly behind US standards, with the current Australian “safe limit” for PFOS at 70 ppt and for PFOA at 560 ppt.

Associate Professor Ian Wright said the US Environmental Protection Agency has stated there is no safe level for PFOS/PFAS chemicals in drinking water. He explained that these chemicals are resistant to degradation and have been widely used in products like fire-fighting foams, paints, cosmetics, and non-stick cookware. PFAS contamination in Richmond and Windsor has been linked to the use of fire-fighting foam at the Richmond RAAF base.

“Humans can readily accumulate PFOS and PFAS chemicals in some of our organs. There is growing evidence that elevated concentrations of these chemicals can be harmful to human health. According to the World Health Organisation, they may be carcinogenic to humans,” Wright said.

“The United States EPA revised their guidelines earlier this year, and now they do not recognise a safe level in drinking water. They have also announced that water supplies must be monitored for these chemicals over the next three years and treated to reduce these chemicals to much lower concentrations. This will be a massive challenge for the US water industry. It is ambitious, expensive, and will take a long time to achieve,” he added.

Wright highlighted that according to the SMH report, if the US guidelines were applied to Australian water supplies, many would fail, including North Richmond. He noted that Australia has been slow to revise its PFAS guidelines compared to the US, which is considered a world leader in this area.

The Hawkesbury Post has extensively covered the worsening PFAS issue in the region. In August last year, the Department of Defence held a briefing on the chemicals in Richmond, organised by Federal Member for Macquarie Susan Templeman, one of the few local politicians showing concern about the issue. The Defence department has known about the dangers of PFAS in its fire-fighting foams for decades, but only stopped using them last decade.

Assistant Defence Minister Matt Thistlethwaite told the Hawkesbury Post at that meeting that people who owned PFAS-contaminated land should not consume produce from that land. However, he added that the health advice was that it was still safe to sell produce from such lands into the market, and the government accepts the advice prepared by the Department of Health and the Environmental Protection Authority.

Hawkesbury City Council has reiterated that PFAS issues are a matter for the Defence department and has admitted it does not test for PFAS at its sewerage recycling plant, where it produces “grey water” for irrigation.

 

 

 

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