Tartan Senior High School in the US state of Minnesota is a long way from Albion Park.
But a spate of cancers suffered by students there could have alarming ramifications for the Illawarra.
A Fairfax Media investigation has uncovered 21 students at the school in the city of Oakdale who developed cancer either during their school years or shortly afterwards.
Five of those students have died.
The school is located just blocks from the global headquarters of 3M, the makers of a family of chemicals called PFAS.
The chemicals have been used since the 1950s in non-stick cookware, some industrial processes and several types of fire-fighting foam.
The Oakdale water supply has been contaminated with unsafe levels of these chemicals – 3M has not accepted any liability for the contamination.
The contaminants have been linked to a range of health effects including immune system suppression, reproductive effects and some forms of cancer.
A 3M spokesman said the chemicals do not “negatively impact human health” but the citizens of Oakdale think the high rate of cancers and the contaminated drinking water may be linked.
The Albion Park Fire and Rescue NSW training site is one of at least 90 sites in Australia that is contaminated with PFAS.
An independent assessment found all 10 testing sites at the facility had PFAS levels above the safe limits for drinking water.
The Australian government is already defending a series of class actions from towns where the chemicals – used in fire retardants – ran off military bases and tainted the soil and water of nearby homes.
The federal health department, citing the work of 3M-funded scientists, maintains there is “no consistent evidence” the chemicals cause “important” health problems like cancer.
But the NSW Environment Protection Authority refers to PFAS as an “emerging contaminant” and one that has unknown effects on the human body.
Residents in the Illawarra have a right to be concerned about the possible effects to their health, especially when state and federal authorities seem to differ on the potential dangers they pose.
State and federal governments need to conduct independent investigations to work out what the risk is to Australians.
And they need to do it now.