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What are PFAS?
A group of manufactured chemicals called per-and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) have historically been used in firefighting foams and other industrial and consumer products for many decades. The two most well-known PFAS are PFOS (perfluorooctane sulphonate) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid). These two chemicals have been manufactured and used since the mid-20th century.
Due to their wide use, and persistence in the environment, PFAS can be found in soil, surface water and groundwater in urban areas at low concentrations. Certain PFAS are being phased out around the world because they are not naturally broken down in the environment and may potentially pose a risk to human health and the environment.
Are these chemicals manufactured or used in Australia?
PFOS, PFOA and other PFAS were not manufactured in Australia, but some are still in use.
PFOS and its related compounds are currently imported into Australia, mainly for industrial and chemical manufacturing uses such as mist suppressants and coatings. PFOS, PFOA and other PFAS are present in some types of firefighting foams to improve the foam’s ability to smother fires.
PFOS and PFOA may be present in a range of imported consumer products, although many countries have phased out, or are progressively phasing out, the use of PFOS and PFOA. The phaseout has resulted in these two chemicals being substituted by other PFAS.
The Australian Government’s National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) continues to review the use of PFAS in Australia and provide updates to its alerts regarding these chemicals.
Why are PFAS a problem?
There is worldwide concern about the use of PFAS – in particular, PFOS and PFOA. They are persistent in the environment and are resistant to normal environmental breakdown.
Because of this, they can build up and move through the environment and food chain, and accumulate at levels of concern to human and environmental health.
Potential for exposure
It is generally considered that the most common ways humans are exposed to PFAS is by drinking or eating things that contain these chemicals.
Studies have shown that the majority of people will have some PFOS in their blood. This will usually be at very low levels.
What are the potential health effects?
The body of evidence continues to grow with regard to the human health impacts of PFOS and other PFAS. Commonwealth Government enHealth Guidance Statements from June 2016 (PDF) advise that ‘research has not conclusively demonstrated that PFAS are related to specific illnesses, even under conditions of occupational exposure’.
Adverse effects have been seen in animals, but at higher levels than have been found in people. The link between the effects seen in animals and how these relate to human health is not yet clear.
The Department of Health and Human Services has published a literature review and report on the health effects of PFAS.
EPA’s role in dealing with PFAS
Currently there are investigations into environmental contamination of PFAS at a number of sites in Victoria and around Australia. The historic use of firefighting foams and other PFAS-containing substances has resulted in areas within some of these sites becoming contaminated with PFOS and PFOA.
As Victoria’s environment regulator, it’s EPA’s role to investigate potential environmental contamination from PFAS and other chemicals, including in soil and groundwater.
PFAS contamination is dealt with like other types of environmental contamination. That means EPA can use its statutory powers under the Environment Protection Act 1970 to hold polluters and landholders to account and issue remedial notices requiring sites to be cleaned up.
For more information on EPA’s position regarding the current state of knowledge of PFAS and guidance for the management of PFAS contaminated sites and waste, refer to our Interim position statement on PFAS (publication 1669).