Toxic firefighting chemicals have been discovered in the once pristine waters of Jervis Bay, only weeks before hoards of Illawarra and Sydney holidaymakers are set to flood the popular tourist destination.
Warning signs have been erected at several waterways around the area, dubbed the ‘jewel of the South Coast’ for its turquoise waters and unblemished white sand.
Marys Creek, of the greatest concern, has been totally closed to human use.
People have also been warned to avoid seafood from Flat Rock Creek - neighbouring iconic Hyams Beach - Captain’s Lagoon and Summercloud Creek.
The pollution has stemmed from the historic use of fire retardants at two military bases: HMAS Creswell, at the northern tip of Jervis Bay Village, and the Jervis Bay Range Facility, to the south.
The foams contained per- and poly-fluoroalkyl chemicals [PFAS] which do not break down in the environment.
Australia’s Department of Health has denied the chemicals cause health effects in humans. However the United States has taken a different stance, warning the weight of evidence indicates PFAS causes adverse health outcomes, including immune, hormonal and developmental effects and potentially cancer.
Testing indicated that, in the north, the toxins were leaching through Flat Rock Creek and Captain’s Lagoon, draining into Jervis Bay.
To the south, the chemicals were being carried by Marys Creek and Summercloud Creek into Wreck Bay, an area home to an Aboriginal settlement.
The contamination was also being spread by the sewer network, with treated wastewater - still containing PFAS - being used to irrigate a local golf course.
Traces of contaminants were also found in Lake Windermere, which supplies drinking water to the Jervis Bay township, but concentrations were about 40 times below safe guidelines.
I wouldn't be coming here if I was on holidays, I would be going somewhere else.
Brisbane-based environmental medicine expert Dr Andrew Jeremijenko warned high risk groups should heed the precautions, pointing out the German Human Biomonitoring Commission had found PFAS exposure was linked to decreased fertility and low birth weight in newborns.
“If I was taking my pregnant girlfriend or wife there I would be careful,” he said.
“They are more at risk because you need a smaller dose to get the effect and there’s still a lot of unknowns.”
He said tourists that regularly holidayed at Jervis Bay should also be wary, because the chemicals take years to leave the human body.
“Every year the more fish you eat, the more it builds up,” he said.
The two chemicals of the greatest concern in the PFAS family are perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS).
The investigation uncovered the most serious pollution in Marys Creek, with the two chemicals combined found at nearly 10 times the safe level for recreational use.
In Captain’s Lagoon, frequented by anglers and swimmers, the reading for the two chemicals was more than double the safe limit for a recreational waterway.
An human health risk assessment, prepared by a Defence contractor, downplayed the risk to residents and visitors , concluding it was “low and acceptable”.
Jack Hampton, a former firefighter at the Jervis Bay Range Facility, is desperate for a blood test to give him answers about his exposure to the chemicals.
The Aboriginal resident of Jervis Bay Village was furious when officials told him residents would not be blood tested, despite offering tests to people living elsewhere in Australia.
"As you know, Aboriginal people only have a short lifespan and this may be making it shorter," Mr Hampton said. "We've all been let down."
He has abandoned some of his favoured fishing spots following revelations of the pollution.
"People have probaby booked their campsite for this coming Christmas and I don’t know if it will have an impact ... it probably scares people away a bit," he said.
"I wouldn't be coming here if I was on holidays, I would be going somewhere else."