Land and groundwater

PFAS in Victoria


What are PFAS?

Per-and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of manufactured chemicals which have historically been used in firefighting foams and other industrial and consumer products. 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.

There is worldwide concern about PFAS due to their wide use, environmental persistence, and chemical properties that allow them to move easily through the environment and build-up (bioaccumulate) through food chains. Certain PFAS are being phased out around the world because they do not naturally break down in the environment and may potentially pose a risk to human health and the environment.

While PFOS, PFOA and other PFAS were not manufactured in Australia, 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 phase-out 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.

PFAS in Victoria - further information + Expand all Collapse all

  • EPA’s role in managing PFAS

    PFAS contamination is managed 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, issuing remedial notices requiring sites to be investigated and cleaned up. As Victoria’s environmental regulator, it is EPA’s role to investigate potential environmental contamination from PFAS and other chemicals in soil, groundwater, surface water (freshwater), landfill leachate and groundwater as well as biota (animal and plant life).

    EPA takes a precautionary approach to PFAS as it is persistent, bioaccumulative and mobile. EPA will continue to assess emerging chemicals in the environment and biota, including PFAS, to make informed decisions about exposure and risk.

    When EPA does not have regulatory authority, EPA will take regulatory action within its powers regarding any offsite pollution impacts. 

    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).

  • PFAS National Environmental Management Plan (NEMP)

    Australia’s Environment Ministers have endorsed the country’s first PFAS National Environmental Management Plan (NEMP). The PFAS NEMP provides Australia’s state and territory governments with a consistent, practical, risk-based framework for the environmental regulation of PFAS-contaminated materials and sites. The PFAS NEMP has been developed as an adaptive plan, which will be able to respond to emerging research and knowledge.

    EPA supports and has adopted the PFAS NEMP.

  • Health effects of PFAS

    All of us are exposed to small amounts of PFAS in everyday life. This is through exposure to dust, indoor and outdoor air, food, water, and contact with consumer products that contain PFAS, such as outdoor gear (e.g. waterproof clothing), new carpets and cookware. This explains why there are background levels of these chemicals found in people who have no occupational exposure to PFAS.

    In the community setting or for those with no known environmental source of PFAS, food is thought to be the most important source of exposure. Treated carpets and floors treated with waxes and sealants that contain PFAS can be a primary source of exposure for babies and infants.

    The Australian Government’s Expert Health Panel for PFAS Report 2018 found that there is no consistent evidence that PFAS are harmful to human health, or cause any specific illnesses such as cancer, even in the case of highly exposed occupational populations. Possible links between PFOS and PFOA exposure and several health effects have been reported in epidemiological studies around the world. However, many of these findings have been inconsistent, with some studies identifying health effects and others finding none.

    Experimental laboratory studies indicate possible effects on the immune system, liver, reproduction and development of animals. However, because PFAS behaves differently in the bodies of animals compared with humans, the results of animal studies may not reflect the potential for health impacts in humans. Because these chemicals remain in humans and the environment for many years, it is recommended that as a precaution human exposure to PFAS be minimised wherever possible.

    For further information on the potential health effects and exposure pathways of PFAS, see the Australian Government Department of Health’s Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) website.

  • Environmental effects of PFAS

    PFAS move easily through the environment through surface water run-off and leaching to groundwater. Low concentrations of PFAS can be found in Australia in soil, sediment, surface water, groundwater, biota and waste.

    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, particularly those that breathe air and consume fish (such as dolphins, whales, seals, sea birds and polar bears). Concentrations increase significantly in the tissues of animals higher up in food chains.

    EPA is committed to conducting further investigations to better understand the extent of PFAS in Victoria. Further information on EPA’s assessment programs is provided in the Interim position statement on PFAS (publication 1669).

    PFAS in the environment in Victoria

    In 2017, EPA undertook the pilot environmental assessment program. The study focused on PFAS in greater Melbourne, the Yarra River and Goulburn catchments, and Port Phillip Bay. The objective of the pilot was to obtain an indication of where PFAS might be found, and so it targeted industrial, residential and rural areas to obtain an indication of the presence of PFAS. The study assessed PFAS in soil, groundwater, surface water (freshwater), landfill leachate and groundwater, and marine biota.

    To inform the study, duty holders provided data for landfill leachate, groundwater, freshwater, wastewater discharges and biosolids. Data was also obtained from audit reports on soil and groundwater. EPA collected data on soil, groundwater, freshwater, marine biota, landfill groundwater, landfill leachate. 

    PFAS was found in all types of samples collected, but not at all locations where the samples were taken. A summary of the results from the preliminary assessment is provided at Table 1 and Table 2 below.

    Table 1: Summary of PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS (perfluorohexane sulfonate) concentrations of soil, freshwater, biota and groundwater

    Soil Surface freshwater Fish and mussels  Groundwater 

    PFOS
    (<0.5 – 8.4 µg/kg)

    PFOA
    (<0.5 – 0.56 µg/kg)

    PFHxS
    (<0.5 – 3.9 µg/kg)

    PFOS
    (<0.0002 – 0.016 µg/L)

    PFOA
    (0.0011 – 0.0287 µg/L)

    PFHxS
    (<0.0002 – 0.022 µg/L)

    Measurable concentrations of PFOS (0.51 – 6.6 µg/kg)
    but not PFHxS or PFOA above the detection limit of
    1 µg/kg

    PFOS
    (<0.02 – 1.3 µg/L),

    PFOA
    (<0.02 – 0.06 µg/L)

    PFHxS
    (<0.02 – 0.086 µg/L)

    Table 2: Summary of PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS (perfluorohexane sulfonate) concentrations of wastewater, biosolids, leachate and leachate associated groundwater

    Wastewater Biosolids Landfill leachate Leachate associated groundwater

    PFOS
    (<0.005 – 0.07 µg/L)

    PFOA
    (<0.01 – 0.0477 µg/L)

    PFHxS
    (<0.005 – 0.015 µg/L)

    PFOS
    (0.0038 – 862 µg/kg)

    PFOA
    (0.0026 – 132 µg/kg)

    PFHxS
    (<0.0002 – 4.12 µg/kg)

    PFOS
    (0.21 – 1.2 µg/kg)

    PFOA
    (0.41– 1.6 µg/kg)

    PFHxS
    (0.59 – 5.3 µg/kg)

    PFOS
    (<0.02 – 1.3 µg/kg)

    PFOA
    (<0.02 – 0.06 µg/kg)

    PFHxS
    (<0.02 – 0.086 µg/kg)

    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 was detectable in waterfowl from all three locations to varying degrees (as demonstrated in Table 2).

    EPA has issued precautionary health advice to avoid the consumption of PFAS affected eels, carp and ducks taken from the Heart Morass wetland, which is a PFAS contaminated site. As PFAS is mobile as well as persistent and accumulative, it was not possible to exclude that there could be contamination of the neighbouring wetland, and therefore this advice was extended to the neighbouring Dowd Morass wetland.

    Based on the guidelines from Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) the mean PFAS concentration is above trigger levels for mammalian meat. These levels indicate the need for further investigation.

    Table 3: Summary of results from EPA’s 2018 screening of waterfowl

    Site Sample size Measure FSANZ trigger level for investigation in mammals
    Breast sample:
    3.5
    µg/kg
    Liver sample:
    96
    µg/kg 
    Heart Morass 10 Mean 15.5 µg/kg 132.4 µg/kg
    Hirds Swamp 10 Mean 3.6 µg/kg 6.5 µg/kg
    Lake Bolac 9 Mean 0.9 µg/kg 1.3 µg/kg
  • Agriculture and PFAS

    In agricultural settings, livestock may be exposed to PFAS in water, soil and feed, resulting in accumulation in edible tissue or milk. 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 suggest this is likely to be in the order of months to reduce PFAS tissue concentrations to a level that is safe for human consumption.

    It is noted that there are currently no restrictions on domestic or international trade in agricultural products in relation to PFAS. You can find further information regading livestock-related issues on Agriculture Victoria’s website.

  • PFAS site investigations

    EPA is aware of a number of sites across Victoria that have been impacted by PFAS. Further detail on some of these sites can be found on our PFAS site investigations page.

  • Frequently asked questions about PFAS - business and community

    PFAS raises many questions for Victorian businesses and community members. Our Frequently asked questions about PFAS page aims to answer common questions about PFAS-impacted materials, including contaminated water, soils, sediments and other solid materials (solid or liquid PFAS-impacted wastes).

Page last updated on 1 Aug 2018