The Department of Defence is investigating the extent of offsite contamination from chemicals found in firefighting foam used on the RAAF Base Williams at Laverton.

A preliminary site investigation finalised last September found the presence of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) at the base, prompting an investigation of the chemicals’ “migration” off base.

A survey of how the local community uses or has used bore and surface water is set to start in the next quarter. The department may conduct sampling on private property.

Luke McLeod, assistant secretary of the department’s PFAS Investigation and Management Program, told a community meeting in Laverton on Thursday there were three types of PFAS of concern if they got into drinking water, recreational water and soil.

“We’re particularly interested in understanding how the community around RAAF Base Williams use water, how they’re interacting with water, whether they’ve got bores, whether they’re using bores for drinking purposes, whether they might be using it for irrigation purposes, etcetera,” he said.

“There’s uncertainty about the health impact so we understand that can give rise to stress and anxiety around that uncertainty.”

He said federal and state health bodies had found there was currently no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS caused adverse health impacts, but that human exposure to these chemicals should be minimised as a precaution.

Luke McLeod Photo: Goya Dmytryshchak

A Federal Department of Health fact sheet distributed at the meeting stated there was “no conclusive evidence” that PFAS caused cancer although some studies had shown a possible link.

A former firefighter on the base for 18 years, Werribee’s Mal Marsland-Kelsey, told the meeting the firefighting foams had been used sometimes two or three times a day and the fire trucks were hosed down daily.

“We were instructed to use this chemical in the fire trucks,” he said.

“We didn’t know whether it was safe or not. We understood it was safe.”

Mr Marsland-Kelsey, 76, said he only learned PFAS were dangerous when he got out of the air force.

Resident Joel Bennett told the meeting that if he had known about the use of PFAS, he wouldn’t have moved to Laverton.

“I’m within a kilometre of a contaminated area,” he said. “I wouldn’t have bought in the area if I knew I was going to be living near a contaminated RAAF base.”

Federal Lalor MP Joanne Ryan told the meeting she was concerned about offsite contamination, particularly as the base used to stretch to Williams Landing.

“I think there might be several hundred farmers in Werribee South that might be interested to know that they shouldn’t be using that water,” she said.

Residents wanting to participate in the water use survey should contact the investigation team on 1800 549 828 or williams.defence@aurecongroup.com/

Details: www.defence.gov.au/environment/pfas/williams.

RAAF Base Williams’ current and former boundaries. Image: Department of Defence