Wreck Bay PFAS contamination leaves residents asking ‘Who’s going to die next?’
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains the names and images of people who are deceased.
It hit the kids the hardest. An exuberant spirit who could leave friends in fits of side-splitting laughter, Peggy Carter was adored in the Aboriginal village of Wreck Bay.
But when she died in 2019 at the age of 39, following a short struggle with a savage cancer, the three children she cared for lost their world. Elder Aunty Jean Carter would run a bubble bath to soothe Peggy’s little boy when he sobbed in the middle of the night.
“His little heart was hurting,” she said.
Residents of this village, on the edge of Jervis Bay’s southern peninsula, 200 kilometres south of Sydney, and close to the internationally recognised white sands of Hyams Beach, live in one of the most visually spectacular parts of Australia. They also know more about grief than most.
They say sickness and death cast an ever-present pall over their community. An assault of heart attacks, kidney disease, cancer after cancer.
Aunty Jean, 90, said she was one of the few locals who had survived to see old age. “There’s no old men and no old women in Wreck Bay,” she said. “There used to be.”
Locals have despaired in their search for answers. What was going wrong in Wreck Bay? Was it hereditary? Bad luck? Something more sinister?
The penny dropped when the Department of Defence disclosed that toxic chemicals in its firefighting foam – known as “forever chemicals” or PFAS – had been seeping into the community’s waterways, food supply and sacred sites for at least three decades.
Paradise Poisoned, a two-year investigation by this masthead in conjunction with Stan, iKandy Films and Shark Island Foundation, has delved into the immense loss of life in the community of 400 people and the devastation wrought on their ancient cultural practices by the toxic chemicals.
It can reveal a politician, a doctor and a water board employee have all sounded the alarm about a potential cancer cluster in the village, which has recorded some of the worst rates of premature death in Australia.
The Herald and The Age have also spoken to three senior Aboriginal health workers concerned about disproportionate rates of illness in Wreck Bay.
Forever chemicals were formerly the key ingredient in a suite of industrial products manufactured by Wall Street giant 3M, including popular fabric protector Scotchgard and firefighting foam it supplied to the military.
They are still ubiquitous in everything from food packaging and makeup to non-stick frying pans and clothing, and low levels are expected to be found in the blood of all Australians.
The United States and European Union have concluded that exposure to high levels of PFAS may harm human health by increasing the risk of some kinds of cancers, suppressing the immune system, raising cholesterol, decreasing fertility, interfering with hormones and causing developmental effects in children.
An independent scientific umpire appointed in an Australian class action also concluded there was good evidence PFAS potentially causes harmful effects, including cancer.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese this month became the first Australian leader to publicly express health concerns about the chemicals.
Albanese spoke ahead of a crucial flashpoint in a class action launched by the Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community Council against the Commonwealth for cultural loss. The parties are in mediation this week in a last ditch bid to reach a settlement before trial starts on May 29.
The Australian government, which is defending multiple lawsuits over its use of PFAS, admitted the chemicals had been associated with some health effects including mildly elevated cholesterol and impacts on kidney function, the immune system and levels of hormones.
“However, these effects are minimal and are unlikely to lead to poor health outcomes alone,” a Department of Health spokesman said.
The government’s assurances mean little to Elder Uncle Paul McLeod, better known as Poppy Mac. His partner, Aunty Vida Brown, is gravely ill with breast cancer.
“How would any government handle anything when they’re in the wrong? They’ll deny,” he said. “They’re going to say, ‘Oh, you got nothing in concrete evidence’.
“But to me, our evidence is buried in our sacred place out at Wreck. Come and have a look at the cemetery, see how many people we’ve got buried here. What more proof do people need?”
This investigation has obtained mortality data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare that appears to support McLeod’s case, showing the village had some of the highest rates of premature loss of life across the whole of Australia in 2014, 2017, 2018 and 2020.
The data from the AIHW calculates how many years of life were lost prematurely by people who died under the age of 75 for each region in Australia, per 1000 head of population.
It includes the Jervis Bay Territory which, at that time, had a population of about 400 residents – the vast majority were registered members of the Wreck Bay community along with about 60 Defence employees.
In 2017, when four residents died, Jervis Bay Territory had 259 years of life lost prematurely per 1000 residents. It was the worst result for any location in Australia in a single year during the entire decade data was collected between 2011 and 2020.
Jervis Bay had the second-highest percentage of years of life lost prematurely in Australia in the years 2014, 2018 and 2020. In those years, it was eclipsed only by the remote Northern Territory regions of West Arnhem and Barkly respectively.
Last year the community fared worse than ever, losing six residents within five months, in a period of mourning known as “Sorry Business”.
In May last year, Ronald McLeod, 74, nearly collapsed when he was told his niece, 49, had died in her sleep. The next day his daughter Regina, 51, succumbed to bowel cancer.
“She squeezed my hand as she died,” he said, crying. “People are dying left right and centre … it’s so hard.”
Another Wreck Bay elder, Uncle Fino, met with this masthead last year, only days after his nephew, in his early 40s, died from a massive heart attack.
“We buried him last Wednesday,” he said at the time. “That’s why I’m down in the dumps. Our cemetery is full of young people around that age ”
Uncle Fino, 68, and his ten siblings have had either heart problems or cancer.
In 2000, Uncle Fino recalls his younger brother knelt beside their sibling who was on life support in hospital after a heart attack.
“He said if I could change positions with you brother, I would,” Uncle Fino recalled. “Then he got pains in the chest and two hours later, he was dead.
“We’ve had doctors travel from Darwin and Alice Springs who work for the Aboriginal health [service], they’ve come here to Wreck Bay, they’ve never seen so much sickness in one tiny little place.”
Uncle Fino said ill health in the village over the past 12 months was the worst he had ever seen.
“We’re all just thinking who’s going to die next?”
Few have forgotten the day in 2006 that Anthony Roberts died from a heart attack on the football field at the age of 42. The Wreck Bay Bears star five-eighth was muscular and quick. He ran the ball once and buckled to the grass, spectators recall.
Anthony’s brother, Todd Roberts, had been concreting with him only hours earlier. “I couldn’t believe it,” he recalled.
Growing up, Todd recalled that every time the north-westerly winds would kick up, it would coincide with fire training drills on the naval base. White sheets draped over the washing line would blacken in the plumes of pungent smoke.
Elder Uncle Jack Hampton, the territory’s first Aboriginal ranger, recalls his team being sent to join naval cadets for training.
Clambering aboard a destroyer, he would crawl through the cavernous warship in pitch darkness, radiant heat and smoke the only guideposts as to where the flames were around him.
“The training was intense,” Uncle Jack said. “We’d come out all soaking wet from the [firefighting] foam.”
Uncle Jack estimated 22 of the 30 firefighters he had worked alongside in the Jervis Bay Territory had died from heart attacks or cancer.
“I buried 104 people out at Wreck Bay between 1966 and 1997,” he said. “That’s a lot of people.”
‘They would just disappear’
Peggy Carter was still a teenager when she was plucked from obscurity and offered modelling work as part of the Jinnali calendar, featuring Aboriginal women in exotic locations around the globe.
“She’d walk down the streets in the city there and people would turn their heads every time,” her grandmother Aunty Jean recalled.
Peggy had many dimensions. Deeply spiritual, she was passionate about photography, her family history and understanding the effects of PFAS on the village’s health. Above all, she was “Mum Peg” to two nieces and a nephew she shared custody over with Aunty Jean, as well as the other babies in the village.
Peggy’s cousin, Kellyanne Stanford, said her beauty was more than skin deep.
“She was one of the most special people I have ever met,” Stanford said.
“Her belly laugh was distinctive and resulted in many around her having a sore stomach from joining her in pure, joyous laughter.”
When Wreck Bay lost Peggy it lost a future elder, said Sharaya Matson, who studied illness in the village for her high school major work. The then teenager had been struck by the number of families losing their matriarchs who nurtured the children and taught them culture.
“There’s a lot of people I did know growing up who did pass away, and I guess when I was a bit younger no one would really say what happened to them, they would just disappear,” she recalled.
In addition to Peggy, relatives and friends have given this masthead the names of nine other women who they say have suffered breast cancer in the Wreck Bay community. It is understood some may have a genetic disposition for breast cancer while others do not.
Dr Kriscia Tapia is a research fellow at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Medicine who has studied breast cancer incidence in Aboriginal women.
She pointed to the latest data from Cancer Australia, which showed 0.2 breast cancer cases would be expected over a four-year period in an inner regional Aboriginal community with 200 women, such as Jervis Bay Territory.
That would equate to one case every 20 years.
Tapia cautioned that she could not determine whether Wreck Bay had elevated rates of breast cancer without knowing which years the cases were diagnosed.
“We know that breast cancer incidence is generally lower for Aboriginal women compared with the general population, but among Aboriginal women with breast cancer, the five-year survival is lower,” she said.
Asked whether it acknowledged health effects from exposure to high levels of the chemicals, a 3M spokesperson said: “While PFAS can be safely made and used, 3M announced it will exit PFAS manufacturing and work to discontinue the use of PFAS across its product portfolio by the end of 2025.”
The Australian Department of Health noted it had commissioned the Australian National University’s epidemiological study on PFAS exposure in three Australian communities which “confirm that PFAS has not been shown to cause disease in humans”.
American attorney Robert Bilott was the first person in the world to uncover PFAS pollution in the late 1990s, and led a personal injury class action against Dupont on behalf of more than 3500 plaintiffs exposed to PFAS which settled for $US671 million ($1 billion) in 2017.
Bilott took exception with the Australian Department of Health’s claim that PFAS has only been associated with minimal human health effects and has not been found to have caused human disease.
“That is inconsistent with the growing international scientific consensus that these chemicals present serious risk of harm to humans, including the recent findings by the US Environmental Protection Agency that both PFOA and PFOS are likely human carcinogens,” Bilott said.
PFOS, considered the most toxic in the family of chemicals, is what has sullied the land and waters of Wreck Bay.
The situation on the NSW South Coast bears an eerie resemblance to other communities also exposed to PFAS, where clusters of sickness have been uncovered by the Herald and The Age over the last eight years.
In Greenland, researchers found “extraordinary” rates of breast cancer in an Inuit population highly exposed to PFAS through their seafood diet.
Ten breast cancer cases were among 50 discovered in residents of Cabbage Tree Road in Williamtown near Newcastle in NSW, which was heavily polluted with PFAS from a neighbouring Defence base.
Authorities in the United States also discovered elevated rates of breast cancer in Oakdale, Minnesota, a suburb which harbours 3M’s headquarters and where the drinking water was tainted with high concentrations of PFAS.
A Herald investigation uncovered 21 cancer cases in students who had attended the suburb’s high school, five of whom died before graduating year 12.
Documents obtained under freedom of information reveal fears of a cancer cluster in Wreck Bay were first voiced five years ago by an Indigenous employee of Shoalhaven Water.
The employee’s concerns about “very high” rates of cancer in the village and potential contamination of its water supply with PFAS were escalated to a string of senior ACT government bureaucrats in late 2018.
The same documents reveal a year later that former NSW politician Justin Field brought similar concerns to ACT Health Minister Meegan Fitzharris.
Fitzharris told him it was a matter for the federal Department of Infrastructure because the village was located in Jervis Bay Territory, which belongs to the Commonwealth.
“Jurisdictional authority, including the ability to instigate an investigation into potential cancer clusters in [the territory], sits with the Commonwealth,” she said.
“I do however support your call for a better understanding of cancer in Jervis Bay Territory,” she said, adding that NSW and ACT authorities had jointly approached the Commonwealth over the fact neither of their cancer registries collected data on the area, even though they provided it with services.
The chief medical officer responded last September, noting that people admitted to hospitals in either NSW or the ACT had their information collected and reported to their respective chief health officers, including residents of the Jervis Bay Territory.
The Department of Infrastructure did not respond to questions about whether it had conducted any investigations into the cancer cluster concerns.
General practitioner Dr David Goldberg is gravely concerned about the health of people in the village. For eight years in the early 2000s, he would cycle into Wreck Bay each day on his tandem recumbent bicycle, often taken for a joyride by mischievous groups of kids while he was seeing patients.
His clinic was first established in a ramshackle shed and appointments never ran to schedule. “They thought I outdid blackfella time,” he recalled, smiling.
But he was caring and meticulous, and the locals could sense it. They soon began referring to him as “Uncle Doc”. It was the ultimate mark of respect.
“We all loved him out here,” said Uncle Fino. “He was one of the best people, you know, not only a doctor, but a best mate.”
Goldberg no longer has access to data on the community’s health. But what he has heard through word of mouth has disturbed him.
“I couldn’t ignore the stories from people, having casual conversations when you bump into them at the shops, about who’s the next person in the street to get cancer.
“I am personally convinced that there’s a cancer cluster going on now that wasn’t there when I was there.”
Goldberg said he was aware that health authorities in the United States and Europe agreed PFAS was a suppressor of the immune system in humans and that the Australian government had observed that high levels caused lab animals to develop tumours.
“So what worries me is there’s probably many different mechanisms for cancers forming,” he said.
Goldberg noted suppression of the immune system increased the risk of cancer because it detected and killed cancerous cells in the early stages.
“There’s a lot of autopsy evidence from population medicine that the average person who gets to a decent age has killed eight cancers in their life before something else gets to them,” he said.
Goldberg noted that PFAS was also known for raising cholesterol levels, which, if undetected over many years, could lead to narrowing of the arteries, kidney disease, strokes and heart attacks.
Goldberg said treatments were available to lower cholesterol and “interrupt the pathway to disease”.
“But we haven’t got a drug that’s going to reverse the immunosuppression of these poisons,” he said.
In a landmark decision, the United States EPA last year ruled there was no safe level of the chemicals in drinking water, based on science showing they could suppress the immune response in children.
“Levels at which negative health effects could occur are much lower than previously understood,” the agency explained.
“Some negative health effects may occur with concentrations … below EPA’s ability to detect.”
It also introduced new enforceable drinking water limits expected to “prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious PFAS-attributable illnesses.”
‘It can’t be a coincidence’
The findings are chilling for people like Ashlee Williams-Barnes, for whom Wreck Bay will always be an “extremely special place”. It was there she learnt to rig her own hook and sinker while in kindergarten. She wasn’t much older when she was taught to dive in its waters, brimming with noxious chemicals.
When Ashlee was told she had cervical cancer in 2015 at the age of 26, her late-stage tumour was inoperable. Specialists, who had suggested Ashlee was too young to be diagnosed with the slow progressing disease, were stunned.
“The odds weren’t great,” she said, crying as she recalled being told she may not live to see Christmas with her two young children.
The immune system is strongly implicated in the development of cervical cancer, which is nearly always caused by human papillomavirus (HPV).
HPV will infect most women in their lifetime but is usually cleared by the immune system in two years, before it can do lasting harm. In rare cases where it fails to do so, HPV can develop into cervical cancer over a 10 to 15-year period, according to Cancer Australia.
Because of this lag, the cancer is usually diagnosed in women older than 30, but can develop in as little as five years for those with severely weakened immune systems.
In 2016, after heavy bouts of radiation and chemotherapy, Ashlee went into remission and has remained cancer free.
Learning of the PFAS contamination the following year, her mind went instantly to her own cancer and the illness rife in her family.
Her grandmother died of cancer, her father has had a triple bypass surgery, and fourteen of her sixteen aunts and uncles have had heart problems. The two who are healthy are the only ones who don’t live in Wreck Bay.
“I now have nieces getting brain tumours and we’ve all grown up in the same place,” Ashlee said. “It can’t be a coincidence, I feel.”
It saddens Williams-Barnes that her children miss out on the immersion in culture she experienced growing up.
“But there’s too many funerals, too much fear now around where we live,” she said.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) provides independent scientific advice about risks in the food chain to 27 European Union member states.
In 2020 it concluded there was “robust” evidence that forever chemicals suppress the immune system, across both animal and human studies.
In the class action launched by the Wreck Bay community against the federal government in 2021, the court appointed an expert to act as an umpire on the health effects of PFAS, with the agreement of both parties.
Professor Nicholas Osborne from the University of Queensland did not agree that PFAS suppressed the immune system, and ruled the chemicals were not even “potentially causative” of such effects.
While he found PFAS potentially caused high cholesterol he did not accept that meant the chemicals “potentially caused” heart disease.
Shine Lawyers, acting on behalf of the Wreck Bay community, challenged Osborne’s report as “manifestly unreasonable and perverse”, arguing it was at odds with an international body relied on by a “very large part of the world”.
Lawyers for the Commonwealth argued Osborne had exercised great care and provided detailed reasoning to support his conclusions.
“The referee has done exactly what the court would hope of a good scientist,” they said.
“The notion that it is perverse is of gross disrespect to the referee.”
Justice Michael Lee declined to vary the report. “He’s exercised his independent judgment, isn’t that exactly what a referee is supposed to do?” Justice Lee said.
The cemetery sits in the village’s most prized position, on the crest of the headland with gun barrel views over the Pacific Ocean.
“Burial sites have to have a view,” said Theresa Ardler, 51. “We believe that when we go, we go back to the ocean because the whales come and get us.”
Theresa’s mother, father and brother are buried in plots here after they all died before her 18th birthday: her mother from ovarian cancer, her father from a heart attack while fighting a bushfire, and her brother’s heart stopped in utero.
Now Theresa fears for her own health: she suffers coronary heart disease and had to have a cancerous cyst removed from her pancreas in 2021.
“We never used to hear about cancer. That only started coming in the early 1990s,” she said.
Goldberg was convinced of a relationship between the ill health of the community and the contamination.
“It’s a terrific little community with tremendous potential and we’ve got this awful shadow hanging over it,” he said.
Goldberg regarded it as an opportunity to learn from society’s “arrogant” use of industrial chemicals without knowing enough about their effects.
“Very thin silver lining, very big cloud,” he said. “I’m not sure we’re learning the lesson.”
The Department of Defence did not respond to questions.
This investigation will feature in an upcoming Stan Original documentary by iKandy Films, directed by Katrina McGowan and produced by Janine Hosking, Katrina McGowan and Mat Cornwell and supported by Shark Island Foundation, Screen Australia and Screen NSW.
Tomorrow The cultural cost: how the Department of Defence’s river of poison has put 20,000 years of culture in jeopardy,