There is growing interest in Australia and internationally over a commonly used group of chemicals known as perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) and their potential impacts on the environment and health.
PFCs are chemicals that do not occur naturally and have been used in a range of industrial applications. The highest proportion and potential for entry into the environment of PFCs has been through its use in firefighting foams for liquid fires.
Frequently asked questions
What are PFCs?
Perfluorinated chemicals, also known as PFCs, are a group of manufactured chemicals that have been used since the 1950s. There are many types of PFCs. The best known examples are perfluorooctane sulfonate, also known as PFOS and perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOA.
What were they used for?
PFCs have historically been used in a range of common household products and specialty applications, including in the manufacture of non-stick cookware; fabric, furniture and carpet stain protection applications; food packaging; some industrial processes; and in some types of fire-fighting foam.
Are PFOS/PFOA still used?
PFOS and PFOA have been phased out of use in many applications and replaced with alternative chemicals (some of which are still fluorinated) that are designed to be less of a concern (i.e. less persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic).
What are the risks? PFCs are of concern around the world because they are not broken down in the environment and so can persist for a long time. Their widespread use and persistence means that many PFCs are ubiquitous global contaminants. In addition they have been shown to bioaccumulate up food chains.
What are the effects on human health? Whether PFOS or PFOA cause health problems in humans is currently unknown, but on current evidence from studies in animals the potential for adverse health effects cannot be excluded. Because the elimination of PFCs from the human body is slow there is a risk that continued exposure to PFOS and PFOA could cause adverse health effects.
What is known about the area of contamination? Where can groundwater users (water licence holders) get information?
The extent of current contamination from the RAAF airbase at Edinburgh is currently unknown. The Department of Defence is investigating contamination on-site but has yet to confirm that contamination has left the site. The EPA is working with DoD to ensure the next stage of investigation provides sufficient information to inform key stakeholders as to the extent of any off-site contamination and whether more assessment is needed.
Where can groundwater users (water licence holders) get support for testing their bore water and understanding the results?
enHealth has recently published guidance that water with PFOS less than 0.5 μg/L is safe to drink. The EPA and SA Health recommend that bore owners regularly test their bore water to ensure it is fit for purpose.
This means water with less than 0.5 μg/L is also safe for irrigation, domestic use and stock water.
Salisbury water have found this in their schemes. What does this mean?
Managed aquifer recharge schemes near the RAAF Edinburgh Airbase have detected PFOS at low levels in both the stormwater and groundwater systems. The results have been below drinking water guidelines. This means that the water is suitable for its major use, which is irrigation of parks and gardens as well as fruit and vegetables.