Perfluorinated compounds, PFASs (previously known as PFCs), are a group of manufactured chemicals that have been used worldwide since the 1950s in a range of domestic and industrial settings. They are emerging as contaminants of global concern because they do not break down naturally and have been found in various concentrations throughout the world.
Per and Polyfluorinated Compounds
Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, are a group of chemicals that have been manufactured since the 1950s. They are 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 foams. They are emerging as contaminants of global concern because they do not break down naturally (environmentally persistent), have the ability to bioaccumulate, and are potentially toxic. There are many types of PFAS, with the best known examples being perfluorooctane sulfonate, known as “PFOS", and perfluorooctanoic acid, known as “PFOA". An information fact sheet on PFOS and PFOA developed by the Environmental Health Standing Committee (enHealth) and endorsed by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee in June 2016 is available at Environmental health publications.
Launceston Airport Investigation
Traces of perfluorinated compounds (PFASs) were detected on land neighbouring the Launceston Airport in 2016. The likely source was identified as the fire-fighting training facility at the Airport due to the historic use of fire-fighting foams that contained PFAS. These foams were used by Airservices at the Launceston Airport fire training site until 2010. Airservices undertook an initial investigation for off-site contamination by sampling soil, sediment, groundwater and surface water on properties adjoining the Launceston Airport in the vicinity of the firefighting training area. The results detected low level concentration of PFASs in some samples, indicating the need for further investigation to better understand the nature and extent of the risk associated with off-site contamination. Visit Airservices Australia for more information regarding the use of fire fighting foams.
Other potentially contaminated sites in Tasmania
The historic use of fire-fighting foams containing PFASs and their concentration at sites used for firefighting training has been identified as the likely cause of PFAS contamination at a number of sites across Australia. In Tasmania, the firefighting training areas at the Launceston and Hobart Airports, and at the Tasmanian Fire Service’s training ground at Cambridge have been identified as having the greatest potential for PFAS contamination. The level of risk associated with these sites is not fully understood, but is being investigated by Airservices and the TFS, respectively. Additional sites around the State (eg fire training grounds at regional airports, large fuel storage facilities and areas adjacent to wastewater treatment plants) have also been identified as potential sources of concentrated PFAS.
Australian Government involvement
While our knowledge of the environmental and human health consequences is still incomplete, the Australian Government is advising a precautionary approach to reduce human exposure to concentrated levels of PFASs. The chemicals are not manufactured in Australia and the Government has been steadily phasing out the importation of products containing PFASs over recent years. Interim human health guideline values for Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) and Drinking Water Quality were recently developed by enHealth. The Australian Government is seeking further specialist scientific review of the values for drinking and recreational water before they are officially adopted. EnHealth is also establishing working groups to further consider if, when, and how blood testing may be used to gather information about populations or individuals; and is also working on national guidelines on breast-feeding and exposures to environmentally persistent organic pollutants.
The Environmental Health Standing Committee (enHealth), which is a subcommittee of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), has developed guidance to assist regulatory authorities in the undertaking of Human Health Risk Assessments and assessment of any public health risks to communities affected by these contamination events. The AHPPC, which comprises the Chief Health Officers of each state and territory, and the Australian Government Chief Medical Officer, has endorsed this guidance, which is available at Environmental health publications.