Voice of Real Australia: Katherine has longer lasting health challenges than COVID

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Firefighting foam laden with PFAS is used for training at the Tindal RAAF Base.

Firefighting foam laden with PFAS is used for training at the Tindal RAAF Base.

Now a national spotlight has been a shone on a sizeable outback town in the Northern Territory perhaps it's time to flush out all its sick secrets.

Katherine, population 10,000, is the epicentre of what most health experts feared most during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The arrival of the virus into helpless Aboriginal communities.

Australia's former chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said at the outset of the pandemic it is what he feared most.

Professor Murphy had heard of Katherine before but it was a different health emergency he faced back in 2018, which remains a national disgrace to this day.

The only real surprise about COVID's arrival in Katherine was how long it took and how unprepared the authorities are after all the warnings.

Indigenous Australians have a life expectancy of almost 10 years less than the rest of the population, and as we have seen from Katherine and its nearby communities, they live in slums for the most part.

But today it is not COVID we want to discuss, but something longer lasting, PFAS.

These forever chemicals are the town's ticking time bomb.

PFAS are a group of chemicals made in the US which had space-age properties of preventing corrosion and making products waterproof.

Katherine is three hours south of Darwin but is the host to Australia's biggest air base, Tindal.

The Tindal air base neighbours Katherine.

The Tindal air base neighbours Katherine.

Tindal is about 10 minutes away from Katherine which provides the schools, the food shops and community sport for the thousands of service men and women.

The Americans have a big interest in Tindal as well, they are about to store weapons, fuel and equipment there.

There is some thought the US will want to base missiles there in the future.

Tindal is well away from the coast and allows better advance warning of any attack.

Plus it is remote and offers lots of space.

Katherine's civil airport shares the western end of the Tindal runway.

From 1988 to 2004, the RAAF used a particular type of fire fighting foam at the base to train its firefighters.

That foam was laden with PFAS, it was terrific at smothering fire.

For 16 years copious amounts of liquid seeped into the groundwater, the local aquifer which happens to flow directly underneath Katherine and empty into the Katherine River.

It is still doing so today.

Australia is officially still in denial, but global health experts agree PFAS is likely cancer causing, causing a host of other health problems.

Even Australian experts agree PFAS is sticky stuff, it builds up in your body, but we'll get to that shortly.

Hot old Katherine has been on water restrictions for more than four years now, the only community in Australia to be forced into this emergency measure because of PFAS.

The Defence Department has paid for a colossal water treatment plant which scrubs PFAS from the water.

EMERGENCY: A smaller water treatment plant was rushed to Katherine when it become clear drinking water was contaminated.

EMERGENCY: A smaller water treatment plant was rushed to Katherine when it become clear drinking water was contaminated.

There is still a warning current not to eat fish from the local river.

Defence has two smaller plants using the same technology on the Tindal base trying to clean up the aquifer, no-one knows how long that will take or even if it is possible.

The townsfolk joined a successful class action against Defence with Williamtown in NSW and Oakey in Queensland which suffered similar contamination from their air bases over lost property values.

Katherine was awarded $92.5 million by the Federal Court which basically came down to under $100,000 apiece for the more than 1000 residents involved.

That money is probably already spent, and it was a one off which did not take any future impact on their health into account.

That could be a future class action.

And on that matter of health.

Prof. Murphy, who was mentioned earlier, ticked off the local doctor who had been contracted to take the blood of citizens for the largest environmental survey of its type ever undertaken in Australia.

About 700 Katherine citizens volunteered to find out how much PFAS was in their blood.

For many years they had been drinking, bathing, and relying on water supplies contaminated well above national and world accepted levels.

The Federal government paid for the testing and in turn contracted the Australian National University to compile the results.

That was back in 2018.

Here we are almost 1400 days later, and there's still no findings.

Some of those who gave the blood have already died, and we know some others think about the chemicals coursing through their veins daily.

Prof. Murphy warned at the outset a single test does not by itself indicate any harm to people's health.

He scolded then Katherine GP, P.J. Spafford, for making public some of the individual test results for PFAS which were off the charts.

During the testing process, Dr Spafford became a campaigner for his patients and the town to the annoyance of officialdom.

That the ANU study has taken so many years to see the light of day is the disgrace here.

The latest update is the ANU has completed its work, and sent it on to the Health Department because it paid for it.

The department says it hopes to make it public near Christmas.

If Katherine wasn't as remote and powerless as it is, if the NT wasn't afraid to upset the golden goose (Defence), perhaps the townsfolk wouldn't have had to wait this obscene length of time.

Prof. Murphy, Dr P.J. and others have retired, some Katherine-ites have expired but be assured, some of us are still watching ... and waiting.

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