PFAS: Threat or Not?

Since we wrote about the PFAS National Environmental Management Plan (NEMP) in February 2018, and released several PFAS FAQs earlier this year, the understanding and knowledge regarding PFAS and their environmental risks has evolved.

PFAS (per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) have been in use for over 50 years in household products like non-stick cookware, and industrial and commercial uses like fire-fighting foam.

Since February 2018, the following latest information relating to PFAS has emerged.

1. Expert Health Panel for PFAS.

The Australian Commonwealth Department of Health in May 2018 released their April report titled: Expert Health Panel for PFAS Report.  PFAS exposure and health effects is limited, current reports, reviews and scientific research provide fairly consistent reports with several health effects. These health effects were:

  • increased levels of cholesterol in the blood;
  • increased levels of uric acid in the blood;
  • reduced kidney function;
  • alterations in some indicators of immune response;
  • 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.

The Panel concluded there is mostly limited or no evidence for any link with human disease from these observed differences. Importantly, there is no current evidence that supports a large impact on a person’s health as a result of high levels of PFAS exposure. However, the Panel noted that even though the evidence for PFAS exposure and links to health effects is very weak and inconsistent, important health effects for individuals exposed to PFAS cannot be ruled out based on the current evidence.

For cancer, the Panel concluded there is no current evidence that suggests an increase in overall cancer risk.

The effects of PFAS on the environment and human health remains uncertain, and though the panel didn’t find a link between PFAS and disease, the cumulative effects of PFAS exposure is still cause for concern. Remediating PFAS contaminated sites and minimising human exposure is still the best course of action.

State government bodies still support the PFAS NEMP and current advice, guidance and regulation remains in place, as per this NSW EPA article.

2. US EPA PFAS National Leadership Summit May 2018

Meanwhile, on 22-23 May 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) hosted a National Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. to take action on Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in the environment.

  • Travel to states with communities impacted by PFAS (Australian Winter 2018)
  • Develop a US PFAS Management Plan (Australian Spring 2018)

Administrator Pruitt also announced four actions US EPA will take following the summit:

  • US EPA will initiate steps to evaluate the need for a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for PFOA and PFOS. We will convene our federal partners and examine everything we know about PFOA and PFOS in drinking water.
  • US EPA is beginning the necessary steps to propose designating PFOA and PFOS as “hazardous substances” through one of the available statutory mechanisms, including potentially CERCLA Section 102.
  • US EPA is currently developing groundwater cleanup recommendations for PFOA and PFOS at contaminated sites and will complete this task by fall of this year.
  • US EPA is taking action in close collaboration with our federal and state partners to develop toxicity values for GenX and PFBS by this summer.

3. Is Australia still ahead in PFAS regulation? What is the latest?

In PFAS analysis and regulation, it is generally accepted that Australia is a few steps ahead of our trading partners across the Pacific, which is unusual as the US has generally been a world leader in environmental toxicology and regulation.  We will look forward to seeing what the US regulation and studies bring, and how new information might affect Australian regulation of PFAS, late in 2018.

The Australian NEMP is due for an update in coming months, with additional focus on guidance on reused materials that may contain PFAS, use of Total Oxidizable Precursor Assay (TOP Assay) in assessments, and how it might be relevant to real-world scenarios.

The TOP Assay essentially looks at the perfluorinated or polyfluorinated compounds that are sometimes termed “precursors” as they can biotransform to form more simple perfluorooctanoic acids such as PFOA and compounds that are regulated.

Traditional PFAS analysis only targets the key analytes and therefore may or may not greatly underestimate the presence of PFAS in the environment. The TOP assay gives an indication of the PFAS’s in the samples which may biotransform over time to the Perfluorinated carboxylic acids, however, how the environment oxidizes PFASs into potentially harmful forms may be more conservative than the TOP assay processes in the laboratory.

In conclusion, the TOP assay is a useful tool in exposing the potential for ongoing contamination by PFAS compounds through biotic and abiotic weathering processes. Results, however, should be treated with caution, especially where a health or ecological risk assessment is required.

4. The Commonwealth of Australia and PFAS regulation and international agreements

The Commonwealth of Australia is also undertaking updates to PFAS guidance federally, and in our international agreements and Convention signatories (see their PFAS website here).  The Stockholm Convention 2009 PFOS Amendment, included PFOS, its salts, and perfluorooctane sulfonyl fluoride (PFOSF) being listed for restriction in 2009 under Annex B of the Convention. Australia is considering ratification of this decision, which has triggered Australia’s domestic treaty making process.  PFOA and PFHxS were nominated for listing also in 2015 and 2017 respectively.

iEnvi’s Michael Nicholls has been in contact with Government bodies and individuals developing new regulation, and has also been involved in PFAS treatment and trials with government bodies.

If you are a Council, Property Owner or Business and would like advice on your project or how PFAS contamination might be managed strategically with the latest updates on PFAS policy, guidance and regulation, contact us on [email protected] or 13000 43684 (13000 iEnvi).



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