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Australia’s Environment Ministers have endorsed the country’s first PFAS National Environmental Management Plan (PFAS NEMP). The PFAS NEMP provides 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, able to respond to emerging research and knowledge. Further information on the PFAS NEMP can be found on EPA Victoria’s webpage.

The State Government has released a statement outlining work underway to identify and manage per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in Western Australia. 

Background

Firefighting foam containing perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)—such as perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS)—was used to fight fires and for firefighting training from the 1970s to the mid-2000s.

These manufactured chemicals were added to firefighting foams to improve their ability to smother fires. The foams have been used at various sites in Western Australia including civil airports, military air bases, fire training facilities, large fuel storage terminals and refineries and ports.

Scientific knowledge regarding PFAS’ environmental occurrence, effects of exposure, test methods and remediation technologies is rapidly evolving worldwide.

Investigations at Australian Department of Defence sites (on Commonwealth Governmen land), including RAAF Base Pearce and HMAS Stirling at Garden Island, have found elevated concentrations of PFAS in the environment—associated with the historic use of firefighting foams.

As well as their use in firefighting foam, PFAS are used widely in heat, stain and water resistant products—including non-stick cookware, specialised garments and textiles and Scotchgard.TM

PFAS are highly persistent in the environment, moderately soluble, can be transported long distances (in some cases many kilometres) and transfer between soil, sediment, surface water and groundwater.

PFAS have been shown to be toxic to some animals, and because they break down very slowly they can bioaccumulate and biomagnify in some wildlife, including fish. This means that fish and animals higher in the food chain may accumulate higher concentrations of PFAS in their bodies.

In 2016, the Commonwealth Department of Health commissioned Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) to develop health based guidance values for PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS. FSANZ’s report, Perfluorinated Chemicals in Food, was published by the Commonwealth Department of Health on 3 April 2017. It includes the derivation of the final health based guidance values for site investigations in Australia, a dietary exposure assessment and risk management advice for authorities investigating PFAS contamination.

These final health based guidance values for PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS—replacing the interim health reference values adopted by enHealth (the Environmental Health Standing Committee of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee)—are expressed as a tolerable daily intake (TDI) and can be used for assessing potential exposure to PFAS through food, drinking water and recreational water during site investigations for PFAS contamination in Australia.

Further information can be found on the Commonwealth Department of Health’s website

PFAS-contaminated sites in Western Australia

The Commonwealth Department of Defence is undertaking PFAS investigations at various sites in Western Australia—including:

Relevant WA Government agencies are informed of the progress of these investigations by Defence, and representatives will continue to attend Defence community information sessions. 

In addition, a number of sites associated with the use and/or storage of AFFF are being regulated by DWER under the Contaminated Sites Act 2003 (CS Act).

Summary information (termed a ‘Basic Summary of Records’ or BSR) on all confirmed contaminated sites (that is, sites classified as contaminated – remediation required, contaminated – restricted use or remediated for restricted use under the CS Act) is publicly available on DWER’s Contaminated Sites Database. To date, PFAS have been identified at the following sites:

  • The Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) Training Academy at 547 Dundas Road in Forrestfield. The Academy has been regulated under the Act since 2006 due to soil and groundwater contamination arising from the storage and use of a variety of flammable substances in training exercises. More recent investigations confirmed that PFAS contamination is also present at the site, related to AFFF use. The Academy is classified as contaminated – remediation required.
  • 521 Dundas Road in Forrestfield (an industrial site adjacent to the Academy) is also classified as contaminated – remediation required due to PFAS impacts.
  • Two sections (two sites made up of a total of eight parcels of land) of the Perth Airport North Main Drain in South Guildford, on land in state jurisdiction (123 Beverley Terrace and 64 Great Eastern Highway), classified as contaminated – restricted use.
  • 128 Farrington Road in North Lake (a privately-operated site used for firefighting training activities), classified as contaminated – remediation required.
  • Part of Varanus Island in the Shire of Ashburton (Crown Reverse No.33902), classified as contaminated – remediation required.
  • Part of Port Hedland International Airport (Title 2874/668), classified as contaminated – remediation required.
  • 18 Kwinana Beach Road in Kwinana Beach (a fuel refinery), classified as contaminated – remediation required.
  • 14 Leighton Beach Boulevard in North Fremantle (site of two former bulk fuel storage and distribution facilities), classified as contaminated – remediation required.
  • 200 Barrington Street in Bibra Lake (a former metal recycling facility), classified as contaminated – remediation required.
  • 1 Bulbey Street and 88 Oliver Street in Bellevue (a former liquid waste recycling facility destroyed by fire in 2001), classified as contaminated – remediation required.
  • 207 Burslem Drive, Maddington (an operating service station where a fuel tanker caught fire in 2009), classified as remediated for restricted use.
  • 153 Port Beach Road in North Fremantle (a former bulk fuel storage and distribution facility), classified as remediated for restricted use.
  • Former Perth Fire Station and Fire and Emergency Services House at 480 Hay Street in Perth, classified as remediated for restricted use.
  • 1 Murray Street in Perth (neighbouring property to the former Perth Fire Station), also classified as remediated for restricted use.

What is happening now?

 PFAS National Environmental Management Plan

Australia’s Environment Ministers have endorsed the country’s first PFAS National Environmental Management Plan (PFAS NEMP) . The PFAS NEMP provides governments with a nationally 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, able to respond to emerging research and knowledge, and this first version outlines further work to be completed during 2018.

 Interim Guideline

Sites contaminated with PFAS (except on Commonwealth land) must be reported to the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER)* in accordance with the Contaminated Sites Act 2003 (CS Act). 

The DWER Interim Guideline on the Assessment and Management of Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) is under review. The WA guideline includes interim screening levels for soil and groundwater from the WA Department of Health which have been superceded by the publication of the health based guidance values and the PFAS NEMP.

Other activities

DWER is also working with other agencies and owners of sites where firefighting foam was used in significant quantities. This includes firefighting training and emergency response facilities at airports and major oil and gas facilities. As with other types of contaminants, sites in State jurisdiction known or suspected to be contaminated with PFAS are regulated under the Contaminated Sites Act 2003.

In addition, due to the preliminary findings by the Department of Defence on Commonwealth land in WA, the Cockburn Sound Management Council (CSMC) carried out sampling to measure PFAS in the marine waters of Cockburn Sound in January 2017.

Concentrations of PFAS, including PFOS and PFOA, were at or below the limits of reporting (between 0.005 micrograms per litre [µg/L] and 0.05µg/L) at all 20 sites sampled in Cockburn and Warnbro Sounds.

Based on the results of this sampling, there is no evidence that PFAS contamination identified at HMAS Stirling has impacted water quality in Cockburn Sound. For more information on the sampling program see CSMC's fact sheet

Commonwealth Government sites in WA

Commonwealth agencies, such as the Department of Defence and Airservices Australia, are carrying out their own investigations of PFAS contamination.

Although DWER cannot regulate activities carried out on Commonwealth land, the Department is liaising with the Department of Defence and the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development regarding investigation and management of any contamination which may have the potential to migrate from Commonwealth land to land or waters in State jurisdiction. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What are PFAS?

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)* are manufactured compounds within a family of fluorine-containing chemicals that are widely used in heat, stain and water resistant products.  *Until recently, this group of chemicals was known as “perfluorinated chemicals”, or “PFCs”. The name change has come about to avoid confusion with another group of chemicals that are relevant to climate change, which are also known as “PFCs”.

PFAS have been used in a range of industrial and consumer products since the 1950s. Most people have come into contact with low levels of PFAS through eating food from grease-resistant food packaging and using consumer products like non-stick pots and pans, water-repellent clothing, carpet and carpet treatments, cosmetics, polish and paint.

Until recently, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)—were added to aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) to improve the foam’s ability to smother fires.

Do PFAS have adverse health effects?

Most Australians are exposed to small amounts of PFAS everyday through exposure to dust, indoor and outdoor air, food, water and contact with consumer products that contain these chemicals. The Food Regulation Standing Committee has advised that the general population’s exposure to PFOS and PFOA is declining, likely reflecting the decline in use of these chemicals since around 2002. 

Australian health authorities advise that there is currently no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse human health effects. As a precaution, people living in or near an area with higher than background levels of PFAS, or being contaminated with PFAS, are being advised on steps to take to limit their exposure to below the derived health based guidance values. The WA Department of Health (WA DoH) advises that health impacts are not expected from exposure to PFAS levels generally being detected in Western Australia.

Scheme water supplied by WA public water service providers, such as the Water Corporation, is regularly tested by independent laboratories for contaminants potentially present in the relevant public drinking water source area, and meets Australian Drinking Water Guidelines, as agreed with WA DoH.

How does DWER decide on PFAS health limits for soil and water?

In 2016, the Commonwealth Department of Health commissioned FSANZ to develop health-based guidance values for PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS. FSANZ’s report, Perfluorinated Chemicals in Food, includes the derivation of the final health-based guidance values, a dietary exposure assessment and risk management advice for authorities investigating PFAS contamination.

In humans, there is no consistent evidence that PFAS cause any specific illnesses, including cancer. However, as these chemicals remain in humans and the environment for many years, the Commonwealth Department of Health has recommended that human exposure to PFAS be minimised. Research into potential health effects of PFAS is ongoing around the world. The final health based guidance values used in Australia are precautionary and assist in providing advice to affected communities on how to minimise exposure to PFAS.

These final health-based guidance values for PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS replaced the interim health reference values adopted by enHealth (the Environmental Health Standing Committee of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee). They are expressed as a tolerable daily intake (TDI) and can be used for assessing potential exposure to PFAS through food, drinking water and recreational water during site investigations for PFAS contamination in Australia. Further information can be found on the Commonwealth Department of Health’s website.

Health-based guidance values for assessing the quality of drinking water, recreational water and direct contact with soil (based on the Commonwealth Department of Health TDIs) are included in the PFAS National Environmental Management Plan.

I live near a site under investigation for PFAS contamination—can I use bore water to water my vegetable garden or provide water for my animals/poultry?

Public drinking water from the tap (scheme water) is tested by water service providers and is safe to drink and use.

People with private bores are advised to have their bore water professionally tested periodically. There are laboratories in WA that are able to test for PFAS. General information on having your bore water tested is available in DWER’s fact sheet Contaminated groundwater—could my garden bore be affected? If you are advised to stop using your bore because testing has shown the groundwater is contaminated, please follow this advice.

The WA Department of Health advises that untested, untreated bore water should never be used for drinking, bathing, filling swimming and paddling pools, food preparation or cooking and children should not play under bore water sprinklers. Home grown fruit and vegetables irrigated with bore water should be washed with drinking water before eating.

See the WA Department of Health’s information on per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances.

How does PFAS enter the environment?

In addition to the use of AFFF, PFAS can be released into the environment from landfill sites where products and materials that contain these chemicals are sent for disposal. 

Is PFAS harmful to the environment?

Due to their widespread use, and persistence in the environment, PFAS can be found at low-level concentrations in soils, surface water and groundwater in most urban areas. PFAS break down very slowly in the environment and can travel long distances in water.

PFAS have been shown to be toxic to some animals, and can bioaccumulate and biomagnify in some wildlife, including fish. This means that fish and animals higher in the food chain may accumulate PFAS in their bodies, depending on their dietary intake.

What is DWER's role in dealing with the legacy of PFAS use throughout WA?

DWER is working with other government agencies to address issues related to PFAS in WA.

DWER released an updated version of its Interim Guideline on the Assessment and Management of Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS).

in January 2017. The guideline is now under review following the publication of the PFAS National Environmental Management Plan (PFAS NEMP) .

The PFAS NEMP provides governments across Australia with a consistent, practical, risk-based framework for the environmental regulation of PFAS-contaminated materials and sites.

Are PFAS firefighting foams still used in WA?

The use of AFFF foams is not banned in WA, however, the Commonwealth Government’s National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) recommends that Australian industries should actively seek alternatives to—and phase out—PFAS and PFAS-related substances of concern, including AFFF. The Department of Fire and Emergency Services has advised it phased out use of AFFF in 2003.

Alternative chemicals should be less toxic and not persist in the environment.

How long are investigations at PFAS-contaminated sites likely to take?

Because investigations into the likely source and extent of contaminants involve detailed scientific analysis, they may take more than 12 months to complete. In the meantime, DWER recommends that groundwater bores and surface water are tested to ensure that the water is suitable for use.

More Information

DWER will update this page as new information comes to hand. If you have queries or would like more information, call the Contaminated Sites hotline on 1300 762 982.

FSANZ’s report, Perfluorinated Chemicals in Food

Final health-based guidance values for PFAS 

enHealth PFAS fact sheet

Department of Defence National PFAS Investigation and Management Program

Department of Defence investigation sites

HMAS Stirling Garden Island fact sheet

RAAF Base Pearce fact sheet

Department of Health’s information on using bore water safely

DWER’s fact sheet Contaminated groundwater—could my garden bore be affected?


 

 Updated 16 February 2018