Go to whole of WA Government search

The PFAS National Environmental Management Plan consultation draft seeks to build a nationally collaborative approach and consistency to the environmental regulation of PFAS contamination. The plan is being developed by all Australian jurisdictions. 

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.

Environmental contamination from these substances is now an emerging issue. 

Investigations at Australian Department of Defence sites (on Commonwealth Government-regulated 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 PFAS are an emerging family of contaminants, research is still being conducted across the world into the contamination impacts on people’s health and the environment. 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, has been completed, and was published by the Commonwealth Department of Health on 3 April 2017. FSANZ’s report 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

What is Happening Now?

HEPA PFAS Summit

In April 2017 Department of Environment Regulation officers took part in a summit of international experts and regulators on the environmental regulation of PFAS. The summit was hosted by Environment Protection Authority Victoria on behalf of the Heads of Environment Protection Agencies Australia and New Zealand (HEPA). Delegates to the summit exchanged ideas about the regulation of PFAS and for fast-tracking development of a nationally consistent approach to the environmental regulation of PFAS.

Options for stakeholder consultation on the draft PFAS national management plan are being considered by Australian environmental regulators. 

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). 

DWER has released an Interim Guideline on the Assessment and Management of Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS). The WA guideline adopts interim screening levels for soil and groundwater from the WA Department of Health and provides guidance on the assessment and management of PFAS contamination, the assessment of risks to public health and the environment, and remediation and management of PFAS-impacted sites. Following publication of FSANZ's report, DWER is working with the WA Department of Health to make any changes necessary to health based guidance values.

* The former Department of Environment Regulation amalgamated on 1 July 2017 with the Department of Water and the Office of the Environmental Protection Authority, forming the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation.

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 [µ/L] and 0.05µL) 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.

The Department of Defence has released a preliminary sampling report which details findings from investigations at 12 Australian sites—including HMAS Stirling, Garden Island. Defence is also investigating impacts at RAAF Base Pearce.

Although DWER cannot regulate activities carried out on Commonwealth land, DWER 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, three types of PFAS—perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS)—were commonly added to aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) to improve the foam’s ability to smother fires.

Has PFAS been detected in Western Australia?

The Department of Defence has released a preliminary sampling report which details findings from investigations at 12 Australian sites—including HMAS Stirling, Garden Island in WA. Defence is also involved with investigations at RAAF Base Pearce.

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).

What is DWER’s involvement in Commonwealth sites?

Although DWER, as a State authority, cannot regulate activities carried out on Commonwealth land, DWER 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 in State jurisdiction.

Do PFAS have adverse health effects?

PFAS are emerging contaminants. They persist in the environment and can travel long distances (sometimes kilometres) and transfer between soil, sediment, surface water and groundwater. PFAS have been shown to be toxic to some animals, and because they don’t break down they can bioaccumulate and biomagnify in some wildlife, including fish. This means that some fish and animals, depending on their diet, may accumulate high concentrations of PFAS in their bodies. 

According to the Commonwealth Department of Health, there is currently no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse human health effects. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has recommended final health based guidance values for PFOS and PFOA in the form of a tolerable daily intake. A tolerable daily intake is a level of daily oral exposure over a lifetime that is considered to be without significant health risk for humans. The final health based guidance values are protective of human health; are a precautionary measure for use when conducting site investigations; and are to assist in providing advice to affected communities on how to minimise exposure to PFAS.

How does DWER determine safe PFAS levels?

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, has been completed, and was published by the Commonwealth Department of Health on 3 April 2017. FSANZ’s report 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.

DWER is working with interstate and international colleagues to ensure appropriate criteria are incorporated into WA guidance as knowledge about these chemicals emerges. DWER has produced an interim guideline to help assess and manage PFAS contamination in WA. Following publication of FSANZ’s report, DWER is working with the WA Department of Health to make any changes necessary to health based guidance values.

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, and into ground and surface water through wastewater treatment plant discharges.

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 do not break down 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 has released an Interim Guideline on the Assessment and Management of Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS).

The WA guideline adopts interim screening levels for soil and groundwater from the WA Department of Health and provides guidance on the assessment and management of PFAS contamination, the assessment of risks to public health and the environment, and remediation and management of PFAS-impacted sites.  Following publication of FSANZ’s report, DWER is working with the WA Department of Health to make any changes necessary to health based guidance values.

The guideline lists various land uses where the presence of PFAS should be considered for investigation.

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.

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.

* The former Department of Environment Regulation amalgamated on 1 July 2017 with the Department of Water and the Office of the Environmental Protection Authority, forming the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation.

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 22 August 2017