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Defusing the timebomb under our feet

By Paul Perkins - posted Friday, 1 October 2004

Australia thinks of itself as clean and green. But the truth being gradually exposed as we redevelop our cities and farms, probe our waterways and take increasingly sensitive samples of the air we breathe, is that we’re immersed in a soup of potential carcinogens, mutagens and toxins. Science is still finding out the consequences of individual toxins for the human body or an ecosystem. What the impact of the full chemical cocktail may be, no one has the slightest notion. Substances that are harmless individually may prove lethal in combination. Substances known to be deadly may, in a modified form, prove harmless.

Salinity, the quality of our water, the loss of trees and native species, greenhouse, feral pests - all these are vital environmental issues for us to be concerned about. The sleeper, and the big issue for our future health and well being as a society, is contamination. Nobody knows how many contaminated sites there are in Australia.

Some estimates put it between 80,000 and 100,000. Every old garage or fuel dump, every sheep or cattle dip, most old mine sites, factories and munitions stores, old municipal tips, contain their share of horrors. In one sense every home in Australia that received a pest treatment in the 1960s-80s is potentially a contaminated site - its owners may still be inhaling traces of old insecticides. Blood tests have shown that almost every one of us - including infants - can carry a lifelong cargo of persistent organochlorines and heavy metals. These go with us into the cemetery, then re-mobilise in the groundwater. We are ourselves contaminated sites.


Australia has some magnificent people in its Environmental Protection Agencies and industry who are doing their very best to remedy this dangerous legacy. But the effort is hampered by limited resources and by the fact that, scientifically, we still don’t fully understand the scale and scope of what we’re dealing with.

Contamination of soil, water and air is our next big environmental challenge. So far we’ve tinkered with bits of the problem - vehicle emissions, arsenic dips, old fuel leaks, PCBs, organochlorines and organophosphates, solvents and the like. These are pieces of a much larger jigsaw. They beg the question: is the combined toxic load borne by Australians more dangerous than the sum of its parts? Intuition might suggest it is.

What we need most urgently are new tools for identifying the toxins that surround us, for assessing how dangerous to people or the environment they are, and specific ways to neutralise them that don’t cost an arm and a leg or involve shifting the problem elsewhere. We also need more reliable policies, given that much of what we have is borrowed from overseas and has little relevance to our environment.

Medical science has raised the life expectancy of the average Australian by 30 years in the past half-century, mainly through good public health, novel drugs and early intervention. Applying the same formula to contamination, we need to get rid of the toxins as we did the disease-causing microbes, find better treatments for contaminants in situ and intervene earlier by neutralising them before they blight young lives.

This is a great challenge, worthy of Australia’s best scientific minds, many of whom are now gathering under a new research effort called the Co-operative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE). Their aim is to develop the world’s best methods for assessing risk and most advanced clean-up methods. This in turn will lead to better standards and regulation, broader awareness of the issue - and prevention of future pollution.

Risk assessment is a relatively new concept in dealing with contamination. Essentially it means, don’t panic till you know exactly what’s down there and whether it is truly risky or not. Some chemicals become more dangerous with time, while others become harmless. It all depends on the soil itself, the conditions, other chemicals that interact with the toxins, and the microbes that will act on them. Every problem is different, and demands a tailored solution. Instead of digging it up and shifting the problem elsewhere, it may be possible - with advanced new methods to be tested in CRC CARE - to deal with it on the spot.


Apart from our health and that of our environment, there’s a bottom line here. Proper risk assessment and clean-up can turn a site worth next-to-nothing into a safe development worth tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. Urban renewal can go ahead with confidence. To put this in perspective, proper risk assessment and remediation can probably save Australia up to $2 billion by 2010 in clean-up costs, as well as generating an estimated return of $4 billion from land, which is now low-value or even unusable. That’s like adding a new wine industry to the economy.

Then there’s the export potential. Asia has an estimated 3 to 5 million contaminated sites, and probably a great many more. By cleaning up our own backyard first, we position ourselves to be the technology and know-how suppliers to the region and the world. So clean-up not only spells health and well being, it also spells jobs, exports and prosperity.

In the 2001 Election, the Howard Government placed strong emphasis on supporting industry to clean up contaminated sites. Much still remains to be done, and in 2004 it is essential for all sides of politics to commit to this vital health and environmental goal. We’re familiar with the injunction to clean up Australia. With what we now know about the soil contamination threat, it has never had more urgency or significance. This is not just about beer cans, butts and plastic bags - it’s about the lives and good health of Australians, now and for generations to come.

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Article edited by Julian Gruin.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

First published in the Canberra Times on September 15, 2004.

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About the Author

Paul Perkins is the Chair of the proposed Co-operative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE) and a and is an adjunct professor at the Australian National University.

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