Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs)
National Environmental Management Plan for PFAS
The Commonwealth, state and territory environment ministers have endorsed Australia’s first PFAS National Environmental Management Plan (NEMP).
The plan provides valuable guidance around storage, re-use and disposal of contaminated material, which will facilitate proactive decision making for contaminated site management, including remediation. It recommends practices to assess sites and address contamination found.
The PFAS NEMP includes a program of future work that is expected to address key gaps by mid-2018, as well as other important gaps through longer-term research activities.
Environment Ministers acknowledged the leadership of the Heads of EPA (HEPA) and the Victorian EPA in delivering the plan.
Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are man-made chemicals that have been used in a range of industrial and consumer products since the 1950s.
PFCs have historically been used in the manufacture of non-stick cookware, in stain protection for fabrics, furniture and carpet, in food packaging and in some types of fire fighting foam. The two most well-known PFCs are PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid).
PFCs are being phased out around the world because they do not break down naturally in the environment so can persist for a long time. They have been shown to bioaccumulate up food chains. PFCs enter the body through ingestion, not through skin contact. That means, you need to eat or drink food or liquids containing PFCs in order for them to enter your body.
In 2009, PFOS and PFOA were listed under the Stockholm Convention, which requires participating countries to eliminate or reduce the release of these and other persistent organic chemicals into the environment. Australia is a signatory to the convention.
Due to their wide use and persistence in the environment, PFCs can be found in soils, surface water and groundwater in urban areas in low concentrations. However, where larger quantities of PFCs have been released into the environment, concentrations may be elevated. Whether PFOS or PFOA cause health issues in humans is currently unknown, but evidence from studies in animals shows that there is potential for adverse health impacts on humans.
South Australia is the first state to ban potentially hazardous fluorinated firefighting foams on 30 January 2018. The ban comes into effect following the amendment of the Environment Protection (Water Quality) Policy 2015 under the Environment Protection Act 1993.
This ban will effectively negate further environmental and human health risks associated with their use and provide the community and industry with certainty around the use of these products.
The EPA will work directly with industry needing to transition through licensing, guidelines and the development of environment improvement programs.
The EPA’s role
The EPA has been investigating historical use of PFCs in South Australia to identify any areas where further environmental assessment may be required. Anyone undertaking environmental assessment works in South Australia is required to notify the EPA if PFCs are found under the Environment Protection Act 1993. The Act does not apply to Commonwealth land. Notifications of actual or potential groundwater contamination are listed on the EPA site contamination index.
The EPA will work with owners of any sites where PFCs are identified to understand any potential risks off-site and ensure appropriate steps are taken to minimise any impacts on human and environmental health.
The EPA has conducted a study into PFCs in the marine environment.
Frequently asked questions
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?
The Commonwealth Department of Health provides information about the health impacts.
What is known about the area of contamination?
The Department of Defence is investigating contamination from the RAAF airbase at Edinburgh and has held a number of community information sessions. It has yet to confirm whether any contamination has left the site. The EPA will continue to liaise with Defence as further assessment occurs.
What should I do if I am a groundwater (bore water) user?
There are many man-made and naturally occurring contaminants that can affect the quality of groundwater. The EPA advises bore water users to have their bores regularly tested to ensure the water is fit for purpose. In some areas, the EPA advises residents not to use bore water due to other contaminants. Residents in those areas are notified by letter. enHealth will provide guidelines for the levels at which water is safe to drink.