IT’S impossible for Kellie-Jo McLaren to estimate what per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) run-off from the Richmond RAAF Base has cost her, her husband Alastair and their four children.
Her head is still reeling from finding out the results of blood tests paid for by Nine (owner of this newspaper) for a report on 9news last week, which showed PFAS levels in her family were significantly higher than normal.
PFAS - which were in firefighting foam used by Department of Defence (DoD) bases for years - have been linked to health problems overseas like raised cholesterol, impaired immunity, reproductive and developmental issues, and some cancers.
While the McLarens live at Yarramundi, they run a 200-acre farm with 200 head of cattle at Richmond, 100 metres from the RAAF Base boundary, and they regularly ate their own grass-fed beef.
When they heard about the DoD investigation into PFAS at Richmond, they became concerned about the effects the chemical would have on their cattle, and the people who were eating it.
They run Paddock to Plate, which up until last year sold grass-fed beef direct to Hawkesbury locals at the Richmond Good Food Markets.
When DoD told the McLarens their beef was too contaminated for them to eat but it was acceptable for them to sell it because of market dilution, the family made the difficult decision to shut their operation.
“It’s a different story with us because we’ve got regular customers - some people who would buy half a beast from us regularly," Mrs McLaren said.
“Plus, they’re people we know. Customers become like friends and family to you and people trust us to supply a good product.
“All our animals were only fed grass because we didn’t believe in additives or feedlotting, we just wanted to have a natural product we could be proud of. So then to find out the meat was contaminated was a bit of a blow.”
Nine's blood tests found chemicals in the McLaren's cattle were as much as eight times the proposed trigger point for investigation for PFOS (a form of PFAS) in meat by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand.
Typical blood levels of PFOS in people are 3.9ng/mL for an Australian adult and 2.9ng/mL for a child; Nine's tests found Mr McLaren had 66ng/mL, Mrs McLaren had 21ng/mL, 18-year-old Michael had 44ng/mL, 10-year-old Hamish had 39ng/mL, and 12-year-old Eliza recorded 23ng/mL - son Angus (16) wasn't tested.
Mrs McLaren said DoD refused to pay for the family's tests, which were over $600 per person. Considering the years-long drought and their decision to stop selling their beef, they agreed to go on television because they couldn't afford to fund the tests themselves.
“It’s overwhelming to say the least. There’s the economic impact, but there’s also our business reputation. The most important thing to us is the health implications, and the implications to our heard which we’ve spent years building up,” Mrs McLaren said.
“I want people to know and to be informed. So many people in the study area still don’t know about it. Defence say they door-knocked, but we have 200 acres across the road from the RAAF base with over 200 head of cattle and we found out [about the investigation] on Facebook."
She is appealing to the Government to provide Hawkesbury residents with access to support packages that include counselling services and voluntary blood testing, currently being offered in other communities affected by PFAS including Williamtown, Oakey and Katherine.
“People shouldn’t have to spend that kind of money to find out how poisoned they are," she said.
“We spent months worrying when we should’ve known [our and our cattle's PFAS levels] and we could’ve made decisions based on those results.”
Mrs McLaren believes DoD should do more for the Hawkesbury community.
“The RAAF are telling us that people are generally not concerned [about PFAS] in Richmond. I think people are uninformed," she said.
People shouldn’t have to spend that kind of money to find out how poisoned they are.Kellie-Jo McLaren
“The contamination is still running directly onto Hawkesbury farms when it rains.
“Right now the Department of Health is saying there’s no consistent evidence that PFAS causes health concerns, but the United States Environmental Protection Agency is saying there is. I think Defence is dragging their feet.”
Federal Member for Macquarie, Susan Templeman - who had requested free testing for the McLarens, to no avail - said it was “outrageous” that the family had been denied testing by the Government, even though they were farming the land.
“I’m pleased they are finally getting the information they have been asking for, but I’m angry the testing wasn’t provided by the Government and that there is no willingness to deliver testing to the people of Richmond," Ms Templeman said.
She said she was concerned about what happens next for the family, given the “high levels reported of PFAS”, and said there had been nothing offered by Defence.
“It is really time for Defence to step up and offer testing for Kellie and Alastair and their family, and other residents, so that they can be included in the actions that Defence takes,” Ms Templeman said.
“I think the only positive of Kellie and Alastair having to go on TV is that the consequences of PFAS have been highlighted so people may be more open to knowing what levels of PFAS they already have in their system. Perhaps they will be less inclined to be soothed by the confusing material about risks of PFAS that they have been given, and ask for straight answers about their own levels of PFAS.
“The water that is contaminated also needs to be fenced off – that would be a responsible thing for Defence to do.”
Anyone wanting to connect with other Hawkesbury residents affected by PFAS can join the Hawkesbury PFAS Information Group on Facebook, run by a local community member.
- Find out more about the DoD investigation into PFAS at Richmond RAAF Base at www.defence.gov.au/environment/pfas/richmond (click on Publications, then Factsheets for the latest Community Updates), call 1800 789 291 or email email@example.com.