Officials tried to change study on cancer spikes to avoid ‘undue alarm’

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Health officials asked university researchers to remove references about potential community concern over elevated rates of cancer found in towns contaminated with “forever chemicals”, even as the federal government was defending multimillion-dollar litigation over the pollution.

Emails obtained by the Herald and The Age under freedom of information laws reveal federal health bureaucrats expressed concern to Australian National University researchers about how they reported “very high” rates of certain types of cancer they uncovered in an independent study of residents exposed to per- and poly-fluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS) leaching off Defence sites.

Samantha Kelly with her son William, 7, in the garden of their new home after they fled contaminated Williamtown. Kelly fears her son’s health issues could be linked to exposure to “forever chemicals” after he was born with high levels in his blood. Credit: Peter Stoop

The emails reveal the Department of Health circulated the draft version of the study to other Commonwealth departments “for their review of any red-line issues” in October 2021, while Defence was in court defending a $155 million class action over property devaluation caused by the toxins.

In anonymised emails released to the Herald, a bureaucrat told the researchers it was “counterproductive” to mention throughout their report that residents may be concerned about elevated rates of adverse health outcomes in their communities.

The department suggested researchers “highlight the significance of ‘null findings’” and say their study found “no consistent links between PFAS contamination and the health outcomes observed”.

The researchers declined to add the suggested line.

“The research team is independent and did not make changes to any parts of the reports where we disagreed,” said Professor Martyn Kirk, who led the ANU research team.

“The research team did not agree to follow any departmental advice to emphasise null findings.

“We didn’t include anything in the report that we weren’t happy saying, particularly as it relates to causes of disease.”

A large number of the changes the department requested were not made by the researchers, a review of the documents by this masthead confirms.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said it did not seek to change the study’s findings but rather to “highlight the findings as presented and draw out the context”.

The spokeswoman rejected suggestions the department tried to “downplay” the findings of elevated rates of certain adverse outcomes in the towns.

“In reviewing the draft reports from the study the minor suggestions made by the department focused on increasing clarity and consistency within the reports,” she said.

“It was a matter for the ANU study team as to how they considered and incorporated any feedback provided.”

The spokeswoman would not say whether the Department of Health had shown the draft report to Defence but said it was usual practice to share studies of that kind with other departments.

“Red-line issues generally refer to limiting comments to those of greatest importance and can for example refer to issues that may unintentionally misinform readers,” she said.

“The department’s primary concern is always the health and wellbeing of all Australians.”

PFAS chemicals in Defence’s firefighting foams have contaminated tens of thousands of houses and more than 100 sites nationwide, and the chemicals are expected to be found at low levels in the blood of most Australians because of their use in consumer products such as make-up.

Last month Defence offered to settle a second class action, bringing the size of its total liabilities so far to $366 million.

While Australia’s Department of Health says any health effects of PFAS are “minimal”, authorities in the United States and Europe have warned the chemicals may increase the risk of some cancers, suppress the immune system, raise cholesterol, decrease fertility, interfere with hormones and cause developmental effects in children.

Last year the US Environmental Protection Agency declared there was no safe level of PFAS in drinking water and introduced tough new standards to “prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses”.

Samantha Kelly abandoned her contaminated property in Williamtown in 2016 after high levels of the toxins were discovered in the blood of her newborn son, William. She declined to participate in the study because she feared the government commissioned it with the agenda of proving there were no health effects from the chemicals.

“It was going to be a study to prove there was nothing wrong, nothing to see here, that was what my gut told me,” she said.

She felt her position was vindicated by the emails.

“It just proves once again the government don’t have the residents’ best interests at heart.”

In late 2016 the Department of Health announced it had commissioned the ANU study into the health of people in the polluted towns of Williamtown in NSW, Katherine in the Northern Territory and Oakey in Queensland.

The aim was to find out if people in towns with known PFAS contamination had higher rates of adverse health outcomes than those in unaffected areas.

The researchers told a public meeting their work would be independent and free from government interference, as there were concerns the government had a conflict of interest because of its enormous potential legal liability.

The study, published in December 2021, found elevated rates of prostate cancer in Katherine, stillbirth, developmental vulnerability and laryngeal cancer in Oakey and postpartum haemorrhage, pregnancy-induced hypertension, kidney cancer and lung cancer in Williamtown.

Deaths from coronary heart disease were elevated in both Oakey and Williamtown and the research team noted exposure to PFAS can lead to higher levels of cholesterol.

The study concluded there was no proof people’s illnesses were caused by exposure to the chemicals because the results were not consistent among the towns and could have been due to chance or other factors.

In a flurry of emails in late 2021, the Department of Health provided the university with feedback on a draft version of the study.

At the time, Defence had settled a $212 million class action for property damage that had been launched by residents of Williamtown, Katherine and Oakey, but identical legal action by a further eight communities was afoot.

The Federal Court’s expert referee had also found it was “eminently possible” that PFAS caused negative health outcomes and Justice Michael Lee noted the settlement for property damage left the door open to future personal injury claims.

In the emails a bureaucrat, whose identity was redacted, said the ANU research team would need to explain why levels of prostate, kidney and lung cancers and stillbirths may look “very high” but the study concluded that a link could not be made to PFAS.

“We are concerned that as it reads, without further explanation, communities may focus on these figures resulting in undue alarm,” the bureaucrat wrote.

The bureaucrat noted that “table 10” had shown higher than expected numbers of all but one specified cancer in Katherine, and higher than expected incidents of all cancers across all the exposed communities.

“We think these numbers could be better explained … as it reads, not being able to draw clear conclusions about the direct link with PFAS seems contrary to the data in table 10,” they wrote.

The bureaucrat took exception to a line in the draft that said “current and previous residents of these areas may be concerned about the observed higher rates of some [adverse health] outcomes”.

“This sentence is used throughout and in our view is counterproductive and likely to achieve the opposite of what we think is intended,” they said.

“We think it would be beneficial if you replaced it with an affirmative statement about what the study does do eg. this study is consistent with previous studies in that it does not identify any conclusive disease causation role for the exposure to the PFAS.”

The sentence the bureaucrat labelled “counterproductive” does not appear in the final version of the ANU report.

It does include the statement: “Overall, our findings are consistent with previous studies, which have not conclusively identified causative links between PFAS and these health outcomes.”

Kirk, the lead researcher, was asked whether that sentence appeared in the draft or was added to the final report at the department’s request.

“I can’t remember where that sentence was added but it wasn’t at the department’s request,” Kirk said.

Kirk said his team incorporated the department’s comments where they improved clarity.

“We were guided by the data arising from the studies we conducted, which included evidence of health effects, exposure to PFAS and community psychological distress.”

Kelly’s seven-year-old son William is suffering health issues she fears could be linked to his PFAS exposure, while her youngest son, born in a suburb unaffected by the contamination, has a clean bill of health.

“You’re just living with an unknown,” she said. “It’s not a nice feeling.”

Kelly questioned why a well-regarded university doing its own research needed to share drafts with the government.

Kirk said it was part of the university’s normal process for contracting agencies, such as the government, to see and provide comments on draft reports.

“The research team did not experience any interference from the department as the funding agency,” he said.

During the first class action launched over PFAS contamination, expert referee Professor Nicholas Osborne from the University of Queensland told the court that health risks from chemicals were usually assessed on a “sliding scale of … probability from likely to unlikely” based on an evolving body of scientific evidence.

It could take decades or even generations to prove causation, the highest level of scientific certainty, even if probable links to health effects were apparent much earlier.

Kirk was asked whether focusing on causation – rather than probable links – could make it appear to the public there were no health risks from PFAS.

“Why we focused on causative links was that is the goal of epidemiological studies,” he said.

“I don’t think that our report makes it seem like there are no risks from PFAS exposure.

“There are many studies currently in progress that added together will make it clearer what the risks are.”

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