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Australia’s Environment Ministers endorsed the country’s first PFAS (per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances) National Environmental Management Plan (PFAS NEMP) in February 2018. 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.

In December 2017 the Western Australian State Government 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 Government 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 final health based guidance values for site investigations in Australia, and dietary exposure assessment and risk management advice for authorities investigating PFAS contamination.

These final health based guidance values for PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS—replace 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 and drinking water during site investigations for PFAS contamination in Australia.

In 2019 the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) published health-based guidance for PFAS in recreational water bodies (any public coastal, estuarine or freshwater areas where a significant number of people use the water for recreation, such as lakes, rivers and coastal waters), based on how people may be exposed to PFAS in recreational water.

Further information can be found on the Commonwealth Department of Health’s website, and on the NHMRC website.

PFAS-contaminated sites in Western Australia

Defence sites

The Commonwealth Department of Defence has PFAS investigation and management programs in place at a number of sites in Western Australia:

Defence has completed PFAS Management Area Plans for these sites, based on the findings of each site’s detailed environmental investigations. Relevant WA Government agencies were informed of the progress of these investigations by Defence, and representatives attended Defence community information sessions.

Sites regulated under the Contaminated Sites Act 2003

A number of sites associated with the use and/or storage of aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) are being regulated by DWER under the Contaminated Sites Act 2003 (CS Act). In addition to locations where aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) have been used, PFAS are often detected near landfills, wastewater treatment plants and other waste disposal or recovery facilities.

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 CS 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 Reserve 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.
  • The former Pilbara lead and zinc mine at St George Ranges in the Kimberley region (an inactive mine site where PFAS have been identified at the former fire training ground), classified as contaminated – remediation required.
  • Lots 27 and 500 Rendezvous Road in Vasse (a former waste disposal facility where PFAS have been identified in groundwater), classified as contaminated – remediation required; and adjacent land to the north classified as contaminated – restricted use.
  • Perth Stadium site at 1 Roger MacKay Drive in Burswood (a former waste disposal facility where PFAS have been identified at low levels in groundwater), classified as remediated for restricted use.
  • 1094 Toodyay Rd in Red Hill (an operating waste disposal facility where PFAS have been identified in groundwater), classified as contaminated – remediation required.
  • 230 Gull Road Nambeelup (a composting facility) classified as contaminated – restricted use.
  • 42 Quill Way Henderson (a shipyard) classified as remediated for restricted use.
  • 214 Shenton St, West End (a former bulk fuel storage facility near Geraldton Port) 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. Following extensive review and consultation during 2019, an updated version of the PFAS NEMP is expected to be released in the first quarter of 2020.

 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. Interim screening levels for soil, surface water and groundwater, as well as interim concentrations for waste classification, in the DWER guideline have been superseded by the publication of the health based guidance values (including the NHMRC recreational water guidance) and the PFAS NEMP.

Esperance groundwater

The Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER), Department of Health and Water Corporation have advised Esperance residents their drinking water supply remains safe following the detection of very low levels of per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) during routine testing in early 2019.

Water Corporation testing detected very low levels of PFAS, well below the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (ADWG), in three out of 31 groundwater bores that are used as a source of drinking water for Esperance. A fourth bore had PFAS detected at a level closer to the ADWG health value, and has been permanently disconnected from Esperance’s drinking water supply.

Drinking water in Esperance, supplied through the Water Corporation, is regularly tested to ensure it meets the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines and is safe to drink.

Private bores in Esperance

DWER is aware that many households in Esperance use a garden bore for watering lawns and gardens.

In June 2019, the Department contacted householders in parts of the suburbs of Nulsen and Sinclair and sampled identified garden bores to ensure that groundwater was safe for non-potable use such as watering gardens. 270 property owners were contacted by targeted door-knocking and a letter drop. 20 identified private garden irrigation bores were sampled and tested for PFAS compounds. Department officers also sampled water from eight bores used by the Shire of Esperance to irrigate parks and ovals, and one bore that is used periodically by the Shire to top up the swimming pool at the Leisure Centre. A bore used to irrigate gardens at Esperance Hospital was also sampled.

The results of analysis by an accredited laboratory have shown that PFAS concentrations in all the bores are very low. The concentrations of PFAS in all samples (private and Shire of Esperance bores) were below the drinking water guideline (0.07 micrograms per litre) and therefore also at least ten times lower than the relevant criteria for non-potable uses such as garden irrigation.

The Department of Health has advised that home owners may continue using private bores for activities such as watering lawns, gardens and home-grown fruit and vegetables.

Private bore owners are reminded of Department of Health advice that untested and untreated bore water should never be used for drinking, food preparation or filling swimming pools, and children should not play under bore water sprinklers.

Any home grown fruit or vegetables irrigated with bore water should always be washed with tap water before being eaten.

For all health related enquiries associated with PFAS please call Department of Health’s Environmental Health Directorate on 9222 6409.

For all water supply enquiries please contact Water Corporation on 13 13 85.

Investigations of ambient PFAS levels

Due to preliminary findings of the Department of Defence’s investigations on Garden Island (Commonwealth land), 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.

The Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER) is investigating background concentrations of PFAS compounds in surface water and groundwater across the Perth metropolitan area. This has involved testing of numerous surface water bodies (lakes and ponds) and groundwater monitoring bores located on state-owned land. Results indicate that PFAS are routinely detected at low concentrations in both surface water and groundwater in residential and industrial areas across Perth.

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 conducted on Commonwealth land, the department is liaising with the Department of Defence and the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Cities 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.

The State Government continues to work with Commonwealth agencies to investigate and manage PFAS contamination in accordance with the Intergovernmental Agreement on a National Framework for Responding to PFAS Contamination.

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, although evidence in humans is limited, reviews and scientific research to date have provided fairly consistent reports of an association with various health effects, including

  • increased levels of cholesterol in the blood;
  • increased levels of uric acid in the blood;
  • reduced kidney function;
  • alterations in some indicators of immune function;
  • altered levels of thyroid hormones and sex hormones;
  • later age for starting menstruation (periods) in girls, and earlier menopause; and
  • lower birth weight in babies.

However, there is mostly limited or no evidence of a link to human disease or other clinically significant harm resulting from PFAS exposure.

Some people who live or work in areas that have been contaminated with PFAS, might have been exposed to higher levels of PFAS through food or drinking water. They are advised to minimise their exposure until there is more known about possible impacts on health. 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.

For more information on the health effects of PFAS, see the WA Department of Health website.

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

On 3 April 2017, the Australian Government Department of Health published health-based guidance values, in the form of a tolerable daily intake (TDI), for use in site investigations across Australia for PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS.

These final health-based guidance values replaced the interim health reference values adopted by enHealth (the Environmental Health Standing Committee of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee) in 2016.

A TDI is an estimate of the amount of a chemical in food or drinking water, expressed on a body weight basis, that can be ingested daily over a lifetime without appreciable health risk to the consumer.

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 or other waste disposal facilities 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. The department contributed to development of the PFAS National Environmental Management Plan (PFAS NEMP), which provides governments across Australia with a consistent, practical, risk-based framework for the environmental regulation of PFAS-contaminated materials and sites.

DWER used the PFAS NEMP to inform regulation of PFAS-contaminated sites in Western Australia under the Contaminated Sites Act 2003.

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) has recommended 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.


 

 Updated February 2020