“On a rise surrounded by bushland in Sydney’s north-west, members of the Westleigh Rural Fire Service have spent years training, putting out blazes in preparation for the real thing.

It is a peaceful spot. Down the slope lies a walking trail and a creek, while the flat land next door sits vacant, awaiting council development into sporting fields. Each weekend, mountain bikers zoom through bush nearby.

What many in the area do not know – including the closest residents – is that the RFS site is contaminated by toxins that have spread uphill and down.

Fairfax Media can reveal that the training ground at Westleigh is one of 10 sites in Sydney, 25 in NSW and more than 90 sites across the nation that authorities are investigating for elevated levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS). At all but a handful of the sites, most residents were oblivious to the toxic threat that lurks nearby.

A Fairfax Media investigation revealed over the weekend that at least 21 children at a US high school have battled cancer through their school years, or shortly after, while growing up in a city whose water supply was contaminated with PFAS.

Fairfax Media has previously revealed 50 cancer cases over a 15-year period on a road near the Williamtown air base, an area that has also been heavily polluted with PFAS chemicals from firefighting foam.

In 2009, a global agreement was reached to ban one of the chemicals, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), by listing it on the United Nation’s Stockholm Convention. In the years since, Australia is one of the only countries that has not ratified the decision. At least 171 countries have agreed to the phase-out, including the UK, Germany and China.

Meanwhile, the federal government is defending multiple class actions from towns across Australia where contamination has occurred. The assistant environment minister Melissa Price has responsibility for the issue and was not available for comment on Sunday.

The Department of Health maintains there is no consistent evidence the toxins cause ‘important’ health effects, in contrast to the US EPA, which has concluded they are a human health hazard that – at high enough levels – may cause immune dysfunction, reproductive issues and certain types of cancer in humans.

Man-made PFAS chemicals were a lucrative discovery for industry due to their unusual properties: they have been described as ‘virtually indestructible’ in the environment and repel grease, oil and water. They were manufactured by Fortune 500 company 3M for 50 years, with the two best known of the family being PFOS and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

The chemicals still pose a threat in Australia today, mainly because of their use Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF), a fire retardant manufactured by 3M and used by the military, commercial airports, fire brigades and heavy industry for decades. In many cases the run-off was flushed directly into the environment following training exercises.

In NSW, 15 sites are under the microscope, including eight fire brigade training grounds, Kemps Creek and Westleigh in Sydney among them. Matthew Jigalin, 20, lives a street away from the Westleigh Rural Fire Service ground and regularly mountain bikes in the area. He did not know about the PFAS.”

Read the full article by Carrie Fellner and Patrick Begley