Former aircraft technician Rick Meehan at home in Nowra. He is concerned about the health effects of chemicals he used during his career.

Former aircraft technician Rick Meehan at home in Nowra. He is concerned about the health effects of chemicals he used during his career. Photo: Rohan Thomson

'How long have I got?'

Rick Meehan and his twin brother Mike were born just 10 minutes apart. They played junior rugby together as boys and as young men both went on to find work as aircraft technicians.

But by the time he was 41, Mike - who had never been a smoker - had developed emphysema, chaining him to an oxygen bottle that he would wheel around just to allow him breathe. By the age of 49, Mike was dead. Rick says he now wonders if he too might soon follow his brother.

HMAS Albatross near Nowra on the NSW South Coast

HMAS Albatross near Nowra on the NSW South Coast Photo: Rohan Thomson

"One day he had a bad asthma attack and couldn't be revived. So he died, choking to death, which is quite hard," says Rick.

The emphysema was likely caused by harsh cleaning and lubricating agents the pair would slosh liberally on aircraft at HMAS Albatross in Nowra, unwittingly exposing them to a cocktail of chemicals now regarded as dangerous to human health but little understood at the time. Other chemicals once used in aqueous fire-fighting foams (AFFFs) are now showing up in the soil and the waterways near Defence bases and in the bloodstreams of many former defence personnel and retired fire fighters exposed to them.

But as the federal government faces two class action lawsuits related to chemical contamination near several Defence bases, it is also preparing to hand a larger share of regulation and testing of chemicals over to the industry that produces them, in an attempt to save those companies money.

HMAS Albatross near Nowra on the NSW South Coast

HMAS Albatross near Nowra on the NSW South Coast Photo: Rohan Thomson

The proposed changes could allow hundreds, if not thousands, of "low-risk" chemicals, some already used overseas, to flood into the country without any up-front independent scientific assessment of the risks by the responsible assessor, the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS).

"It's like putting the wolves in charge of the sheep," says former Chief Petty Officer Colin Stubbs.

Stubbs, who also worked at HMAS Albatross, was exposed to the fire-fighting foams over his decades of fire-fighting service, foams containing the chemicals that have sparked a nationwide investigation into potential contamination in and around Defence air bases.

HMAS Albatross near Nowra on the NSW South Coast

HMAS Albatross near Nowra on the NSW South Coast Photo: Rohan Thomson

The Department of Defence did not respond to Fairfax Media's questions on the status of those investigations.

Told they were "like a glorified detergent", Colin describes more permissive times, when the foams were used to wash down fire trucks. That was before the trucks started to fall apart.

"And when you were using it on the fireground, because it was so light and bubbly and whatever, it all ends up all over (you), you've got it from head to toe, like a snowman," he says.

Former aviation fireman Colin Stubbs at home in Bomaderry. He is concerned about the health effects of chemicals he used during his career.

Former aviation fireman Colin Stubbs at home in Bomaderry. He is concerned about the health effects of chemicals he used during his career. Photo: Rohan Thomson

"Because at the time we didn't realise how corrosive this shit was, we'd wash our own cars in it, for about a year, and then they would start to fall apart."

Since leaving the Navy, Colin has suffered from unusual swelling in different parts of his skin and body.

Doctors have been unable to diagnose a specific cause. It is unclear if such conditions could be linked to the foam.

"It's pretty crazy and I've done all the allergy tests and everything, it all comes back negative, done all the blood tests and everything comes back negative," he said.

"They've just got no idea what causes it, and it started 20-odd years ago now, just after I got out of the Navy."

'We need to know'

From cosmetics and cleaning products to carpets, car parts, mining chemicals and paints, the regulatory scheme is responsible for assessing the risks of the raw industrial chemicals that go into products that touch almost every facet of Australian life.

It is the closest thing Australia has to a regulator of all chemicals in use, excepting those in medicines and medicinal technology, agriculture or veterinary medicines.

The Public Health Association of Australia's Joe Hlubucek, who sits on the scheme's key advisory committee, says one key concern was that the regulatory oversight over the so-called lower-risk chemicals could be jeopardised or lessened allowing a greater risk for people and the environment.

"Industry is of course keen on seeing how the reporting requirements for them are reduced, but the association and other consumer groups have concerns that there may not be sufficient safeguards for the so-called lower risk chemicals," he says.

A Fellow of the Royal Australian Chemistry Institute, Hlubucek says importers and manufacturers would be able to self-assess chemicals based only on the available information from manufacturers of the raw chemicals, to meet the new criteria.

"The introducers of these chemicals are able to do that without any formal oversight with NICNAS other than an annual reporting that they have introduced these chemicals," he says.

"The community is concerned that this is not sufficient.

"The population needs to know what chemicals are coming into the country."

'No proposal' to weaken scheme

The planned changes would cut the number of new introduced chemicals assessed by the Scheme from about 3 per cent a year to an estimated 0.3 per cent, while post-market compliance powers would be strengthened.

It would help companies fast-track chemicals classed low-risk or those already approved by overseas in places like Canada, the United States and Europe.

But the chemical watchdog's director, Dr Brian Richards, says the changes are not about lowering the protection of public health.

"There is no policy proposal here to weaken chemical regulation in Australia, the policy review was intended to maintain the current levels of protection, but trying to do it more efficiently," Dr Richards says.

"The policy review concluded that the same level of protection could be achieved in ways that imposed a lower burden on the regulated industry, which makes Australian industry more competitive.

"So the higher risk chemicals will continue to be subject to pre-market risk assessment.

"The low risk chemicals - and they have to show they're low risk and they have to have data to show they're low risk - are the ones that will have a faster path to market."

'It was a total surprise'

But history shows that some of those deemed "low risk" today could later be found to be damaging to human health or the environment. University of Canberra associate professor of water science and ACT representative of the Society of Environmental Toxicologists, Ben Kefford, warns fire-fighting foams are a prime example.

"It often takes decades of research to show that, so if there's no independent scrutiny of the (industry) risk assessment by others then there's...enhanced potential for that (harm) to occur," he says.

Similarly, one of NICNAS' own senior scientists, Dr Kerry Nugent, told a 2015 Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into fire fighting foams contamination at a fire-fighter training base at Fiskville that such a situation "definitely happens".

Dr Nugent was involved in the original 1999 assessment of a polymer based on chemicals that break down into perflourooctanoic acid (PFOA) - one of the chemicals used in the controversial fire fighting foams.

"We knew nothing about it. It was just a polymer about which no-one had any suspicion of toxicity," he told the inquiry.

Dr Nugent said everyone was extremely surprised in 2002 when manufacturer 3M abruptly withdrew the chemicals from the global market, as no-one was aware of the substances' modes of toxicity - the way it affects human and environmental health.

"It was a total surprise," he said.

'Changes don't  go far enough'

Various industry groups maintain the scheme needs to be reformed, criticising the existing scheme for its complexity, a lack of focus on 'risk-based assessment', growing fees and levies and the duplication of assessments already completed by reputable overseas regulators.

Fairfax Media contacted several industry stakeholders intimate with the scheme. Only cosmetic, hygiene and cleaning product lobby group Accord Australasia granted an interview for this report, with public affairs manager Craig Brock.

While Mr Brock backed moves to make the system focus on higher risk chemicals, he remained concerned the proposed "risk matrices" were too complex and the government's promised $23 million in savings would not eventuate, among other issues.

"We think that also the approach they're adopting would be replicating assessments done overseas...which moves away from one of the good policies that the Coalition government announced a couple of years ago, the Accepting Trusted International Standards policy," he said.

"So we think that the current arrangements are not adopting the government's policy far enough."

The cost of contamination

But others who deal with the after-effects of chemical contamination in Australia say the proposals go too far and the existing system needs strengthening.

The Cooperative Research Centre for Contaminant Assessment and Remediation of the Environment estimates about $3 billion a year is spent remediating existing contaminated sites in Australia - a figure that would snowball if all Australia's estimated 160,000 contaminated sites were fully remediated.

CRC CARE director, Dr Ravi Naidu, says he believes the scheme needs more investment, and the great majority of chemicals need to be looked at closely.

"It is very challenging (cleaning up contamination) and that's the reason why we have about 160,000 contaminated sites," Dr Naidu says.

He believes there is also a need for a regular national biomonitoring survey to better grasp the levels of chemicals already in Australians' bodies.

"When you look at exposure of people to chemicals, there is a World Health Organisation report that shows that a total of almost 12 million people die from exposure to chemicals (and other contaminants)."

That 2016 WHO report showed some 12.6 million deaths from unhealthy environments globally in 2012, including deaths due to air pollution, secondhand tobacco smoke, chemical exposure and contamination, UV radiation and climate change.

There is no specific measure of how many deaths can be directly attributed to chemical contamination or exposure.

But Dr Naidu says overall unhealthy environments contribute to more deaths globally each year than cancer, at about two million, diabetes at one million and AIDS at one million.

"So chemical contaminants impact people a lot more, particularly (in) fatalities if you look at that, far more than any other illness and it's also been found to be far (more) severe," he says.

'We're walking time bombs'

In February this year, Colin Stubbs visited his doctor, who had the results of his recent blood screening - it contained mixed news.

Around 10 years since his last likely exposure, the chemicals in the foams he had used to clean vehicles were still present in his body, although at levels lower than the somewhat questionable Australian guidelines.

"I'm relieved they're not over the top (of the guidelines), but that goes with time, so who knows what they were 10 years ago?" he says.

Rick, a prominent local figure in the Returned and Services League, says he was not speaking out to criticise Defence, but that he had wider concerns about others who worked in civilian industries at the time who may also have been exposed to similar chemicals.

He says experiences like his, Colin's and many others lends weight to concerns held by many ex-servicemen that their poor health could be due to such exposure.

"We're walking time bombs, some with a short fuse, some with a long fuse," he says.

"So how long your fuse is, no-one knows. With my brother's fuse, it was short. I've got a family to support, two kids and wife, and ah, I'd like to know how long my fuse is."