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PFAS (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a group of manufactured chemicals. There are more than 4000 types of PFAS.

Find out more in PFAS and EPA: A quick reference guide from Victoria’s environmental regulator (publication 1836).

PFAS in the environment

PFAS move easily through the environment through surface water runoff and leaching to groundwater. Low concentrations of PFAS can be found in Australia in soil, sediment, surface water, groundwater, biota and waste. The movement of PFAS in the environment is shown in Figures 1 and 2.

Environmental contamination is of growing concern as PFAS have been shown to have adverse impacts on fish and some animals. PFAS accumulate in the bodies of animals, with laboratory studies indicating potential for negative effects on their reproductive, developmental and other systems. In studies where large doses of PFAS were given to laboratory animals, possible links with effects on the immune system, liver, reproduction, development and benign (non-cancerous) tumours have been reported. Concentrations increase significantly in the tissues of animals higher up in food chains.

Figure 1. PFAS movement from industrial sites and pathways for human and environmental exposure.

An illustrated diagram of PFAS movement from industrial sites and pathways for human and environmental exposure. 

Figure 2. PFAS movement in the domestic environment and pathways for human and environmental exposure in the domestic environment.

An illustrated diagram of PFAS movement in the domestic environment and pathways for human and environmental exposure in the domestic environment. 

PFAS have been found in water, sediment, soil, biota and waste in Victoria. EPA continues to assess ambient environmental (soil, water and sediment) and biota (fish, waterfowl and livestock) PFAS levels across the state to better understand the distribution and concentration of PFAS in the environment. EPA is also working with industry to better understand PFAS in leachate from landfills.

Information about storage, transport and disposal of PFAS-impacted materials and wastes is on the PFAS and waste page.

Ambient

EPA has an Ambient Emerging Contaminants project. It collects and analyses the occurrence, concentration, and spatial distribution of emerging chemical contaminants in Victoria’s aquatic ecosystems and determines the risk posed to these environments.

Through this project EPA has built on a pilot program from 2017 and conducted a broader assessment program in 2018 focused around five major urban centres – Melbourne, Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo and the Latrobe Valley. Testing was carried out on water, sediment and soils associated with different land uses – background, agriculture (low and high intensity), residential and industrial.

Information is being made available regarding this study. Current publications include:

Biota

EPA has a Biota Emerging Contaminants project. It collects and analyses the occurrence, concentration, and spatial distribution of emerging chemical contaminants in Victorian biota including waterfowl and fish.

Waterfowl

In 2018, EPA undertook a screening assessment of waterfowl from three locations in Victoria to better understand the extent and distribution of PFAS contamination in waterfowl ahead of the 2018 hunting season. The screening assessment demonstrated that PFAS were detectable in waterfowl in all locations to varying degrees. These concentrations indicated the need for further investigation based on the guidelines from Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) for mammals in the absence of guidelines for waterfowl.

In May and June 2018, EPA conducted a more extensive study into PFAS concentrations in waterfowl from 19 wetlands around the state (publication 1734). This study aimed to identify potential risks associated with the consumption of waterfowl from popular recreational duck hunting sites. Waterfowl tissue samples were found to contain variable PFAS concentrations. Based on the results of this study, EPA recommends restricting the consumption of recreationally hunted waterfowl for the following wetlands:

  • Macleod Morass (Bairnsdale): children should limit their consumption of waterfowl breast meat to one serve per month and adults and children should not eat liver.
  • Hospital Swamp (Bellarine Peninsula): children should limit their consumption of waterfowl breast meat to one serve per month and adults and children should not eat liver.
  • Heart Morass and Dowd Morass wetlands (East Sale): waterfowl should not be eaten, consistent with previous advice.  

See publication 1732 for more information.

Fish

Unlike waterfowl, there has been no statewide program to assess PFAS in fish. Instead, EPA has assessed fish in waterways where high levels of PFAS contamination has occurred or is likely to have occurred. As a result of these investigations, which used the guidelines for fish consumption in FSANZ and subsequent risk assessments, EPA has issued several health advisories:

  • Lake Kernot, Morwell: Do not eat fish or eels caught from the lake.
  • Heart Morass Wetland: Do not eat fish or eels caught from the wetland.
  • Lower Latrobe River: Do not eat more than one serve of eel per month from the Lower Latrobe River bounded by Heart Morass, and do not eat more than one serve of carp per week caught from the Lower Latrobe River bounded by Heart Morass.
  • Hazelwood Pondage: Do not eat more than one serve of fish per week for adults and one serve per fortnight for children.
  • Maribyrnong River catchment: Do not eat fish caught from Maribyrnong River upstream of Solomons Ford in Avondale Heights (including Deep Creek up to Bulla).
  • Arundel Creek: Avoid fishing, swimming or using water from Arundel Creek for stock watering. Pets should also be kept out of Arundel Creek.
  • Bandiana Military Area: Do not eat carp caught in the Kiewa River between Bakers Lane and the Cudgewa-Wodonga Rail Trail, inclusive of the flood plain area bound by Bakers Lane and the Murray Valley Highway. This advice is only about carp and does not include other fish species.
  • Skeleton Creek Lower Catchment: Do not eat fish or eels caught from Skeleton Creek to the south of the Princes Freeway (M1) in Point Cook, Seabrook and Altona Meadows to the bridge to Altona Meadows.

See publication 1735 and publication 1654 for more information.

Livestock

In agricultural settings, livestock may be exposed to PFAS in water, soil and feed, resulting in accumulation in edible tissue or milk. PFAS persists for a significantly longer duration in the environment (>80 years) than in humans and livestock (Lupton et al 2014).

Generally, livestock will eliminate PFAS over time if the contaminated source (e.g. stock water) is removed. The time this takes will depend on how much PFAS the animal has been exposed to, but early studies from sheep and non-dairy cattle suggest this is likely to be in the order of months to reduce PFAS tissue concentrations to a level that will minimise the exposure to humans consuming the animal products.

EPA is undertaking work with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and Agriculture Victoria on a project to assess PFAS in livestock. The project aims to better understand the distribution and elimination of PFAS in these animals, as well as the adequacy of risk assessment models used with respect to agriculture.

It is noted that there are currently no restrictions on domestic or international trade in agricultural products in relation to PFAS.

For further information on livestock-related issues, contact an Agriculture Victoria Veterinary or Animal Health Officer by visiting your local Agriculture Victoria office or telephoning 136 186. You can also find information on Agriculture Victoria’s website.

Leachate

In 2017 and 2018, EPA sampled leachate from 22 landfills across Victoria. The samples were analysed for a suite of 15 PFAS. PFAS were found in all leachate samples representing all waste types and geographic distribution of waste sources across Victoria. EPA’s leachate sampling results strongly indicate that the contribution of PFAS from landfill leachate to the total PFAS mass discharged into Victorian waste water treatment plans (‘WWTPs’) is minor.

EPA’s position is that leachate discharges to sewer (including trade waste) should not be generally restricted based on PFAS content. Landfill sites and the water treatment industry should be vigilant and work collaboratively to identify where specific sites warrant further consideration, such as when a sites leachate has unusually elevated concentrations of PFAS and discharges a high volume of this leachate to sewer. Table 1 below gives the mean, median and range of the dominant PFAS found in landfill leachate by EPA Victoria. 

Table 1 – mean, median and range of concentrations of dominant PFAS (91% of total PFAS mass identified) in landfill leachate in Victoria (n=22).

Compound Mean concentration (µg/L) Standard deviation (µg/L) Range (µg/L)
Perfluorobutanesulfonic Acid (PFBS)
2.11
5.65 0.04 – 1.23*
Perfluorohexanoic Acid (PFHxA) 1.71  1.97 0.11 – 7.74
Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) 0.79  0.76 0.09 – 3.12
Perfluorohexanesulfonic Acid (PFHxS) 0.55  0.55 0.03 – 2.41
Perfluoropentanoic Acid (PFPeA) 0.45 0.52 ND – 2.07 
Perfluoroheptanoic Acid (PFHpA) 0.41  0.43 0.04 – 1.7 
Perfluorooctanesulfonic Acid (PFOS)
0.32 0.29 0.02 – 1.2

*PFBS outlier of 23 µg/L removed

The results of EPA’s sampling were compared to a review of available literature on PFAS in landfill leachate (publication to be made available shortly). This confirmed that Victoria’s trends of PFAS in leachate reflect those observed nationally and internationally. The mean annual PFAS mass entering the two major Victorian waste water treatment plants (WWTP) from all sources ranges from 49.65 kg/yr to 65.15 kg/yr (calculated from the PFAS mass range in influent (reported by Coggan et al 2017 and WWTP influent volumes provided by Melbourne Water, 2019).

EPA identified that 10 landfills of the 22 sampled in 2017 and 2018 discharged leachate to sewer, with a mean discharge volume of 20.6 ML/yr and a median discharge volume of 9 ML/yr.  Using these discharge volumes and the mean mass of all PFAS found in leachate, EPA estimated the PFAS mass discharged to sewer annually from landfill leachate in Victoria was 1.05 kg/yr using the mean leachate discharge volume and 0.45 kg/yr using the median leachate discharge volume. The median and mean were used because the leachate volumes discharged to sewer vary significantly between the 10 sites, ranging from 2.5 ML to 84.5 ML per year and three of the 10 landfills discharge significantly more leachate that the other 7.  These three sites skew the calculation of the mean and increase the estimated PFAS mass to sewer.

Using the mean leachate discharge volume approximately 1.6% to 2.1% of the mean annual PFAS mass in the influent of the two major WWTPs in 2018 is sourced from landfill leachate.  Using the median leachate discharge volume approximately 0.7% to 0.9% of the mean annual PFAS mass in the influent of the two major WWTPs in 2018 is sourced from landfill leachate.

Table 2: estimated PFAS mass from landfill leachate compared to mean annual PFAS mass in the influent of the two major WWTPs in 2018.

PFAS mass discharged to sewer in landfill leachate (kg/yr) Total PFAS mass in Greater Melbourne WWTP influent (kg/yr) Amount of total PFAS in WWTP influent from leachate (%)
1.05 (mean leachate discharge volume)
49.55 – 65.15 1.6 – 2.1
0.45 (median leachate discharge volume) 49.55 – 65.15 0.7 – 0.9 

EPA’s data is currently limited, necessitating a conservative (over) estimation of the contribution of PFAS in leachate discharged to sewer. The actual PFAS mass discharged to sewer by Victorian landfills is likely to be less if it were calculated based on actual leachate volumes discharged and actual leachate PFAS concentrations site by site. Therefore, EPA’s calculation of 459g/yr to 1.05kg/yr is a conservative estimate of the PFAS mass discharged to sewer.

Emerging contaminants assessments

Read next

About PFAS

PFAS and EPA's role

PFAS and health

PFAS and waste

PFAS use in Australia

PFAS National Environmental Management Plan (NEMP)

Future plans for regulating PFAS: PFAS NEMP 2.0

 

This page was copied from EPA's old website. It was last updated on 20 May 2020.

Reviewed 18 May 2021