What started as a legal battle from an Ohio firefighter against chemical manufacturers has now spread to Australia, with Shine Lawyers (ASX: SHJ) launching one of the country's biggest ever class action suits.
The Brisbane-based firm announced yesterday it was investigating a potential super class action against the Department of Defence on behalf of 40,000 residents whose properties have been contaminated with the toxic firefighting foam PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl).
"Much like the thousands of drinking water contamination cases in North America... here too in Australia l the PFAS spreads at alarming rates," Shine ambassador Erin Brockovich said on her Facebook page yesterday.
"Likewise, I am encouraging all those impacted to talk with their doctors and have their blood levels checked. The diseases associated with exposure are debilitating and deadly."
The move comes just a month after a US federal judge allowed a similar class action to proceed against chemical manufacturers 3M, DowDuPont, Chemours and six other companies.
That case was initially filed in October 2018 by Kevin D. Hardwick of Ohio, who along with thousands of claimants blames the companies for the detectable levels of PFAS chemicals found in their blood and claims exposure has resulted in injury.
"These corporations have knowingly contaminated the blood of virtually everyone in the country," said Ken Cook, president of American activist organisation the Environmental Working Group.
"3M and DuPont have hidden knowledge about the toxicity of PFAS chemicals from their own workers and the public for decades, and those fateful decisions have come home to roost.
"The court has put the chemical industry on notice that we are a big step closer to the day of reckoning for companies that have pursued profits over protecting Americans' health."
Here in Australia, another American Erin Brockovich has been promoting awareness of the issue, travelling the country and questioning mixed messages from the government.
"Residents are being told it doesn't pose a risk to their health but at the same time the Government is giving them bottled water," she says.
"It's an extraordinarily confusing message."
Any action that comes out of Shine's investigations would be an open class action, meaning residents living in eight affected communities who meet certain criteria will automatically be included unless they choose not to be involved. This would be separate to proceedings launched on behalf of residents in the towns of Oakey (QLD) and Katherine (NT).
Shine's national special counsel Joshua Aylward estimates up to 40,000 people live in the impacted communities and are affected by these chemicals.
"These are generally not wealthy people who can simply pack up and leave," says Aylward.
"They can't sell their properties because people won't buy them and even if there was an interested party, they would likely offer peanuts, or be unable to get finance."
In addition to economic loss, Aylward claims the emotional toll on affected families has been enormous.
"I've spent a lot of time with people who are crying because they've found out that their water is contaminated and they and their kids have been drinking it for years."
"Residents are learning that their kids have exceptionally high levels of PFAS in their blood and they are really concerned for their family."Never miss a news update, subscribe here. Follow us on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter.
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