PFAS is a term used to refer to a large group of chemicals (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) that have been used since the 1950s. The chemical structure of PFAS gives them useful properties, such as thermal stability and the ability to repel water and oil, that makes them valuable in a wide variety of industrial and consumer applications. They have been used in the manufacture of non-stick cookware, fabric, furniture and carpet stain protection, food packaging and some types of firefighting foam.
The best-known examples of PFAS are:
- perfluorooctane sulfonate, also known as PFOS; and
- perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOA.
During the manufacturing process of some PFAS, and the use of PFAS products, PFOA and PFOS have been released to the air, water and soil throughout the world. Unlike many other organic chemicals PFOS and PFOA do not bind strongly to soil and organic materials. This means that they are readily transported in solution with surface and groundwaters. However, PFAS have been studied around the world and are found in many places because they do not break down very quickly in the environment.
Some sites are investigated for PFAS contamination due to their association (current or historical) with aviation, defence or fire and emergency services. PFAS is a major constituent of aqueous film forming foams (AFFF) used in firefighting that have been in use in Australia since the 1950s. The need for training of personnel in firefighting techniques has resulted in repeated use of the foams which in turn has resulted in concentration of PFAS.
In Australia PFAS are ubiquitous at low concentrations in wastewater influent, effluent, in biosolids and in the leachate from landfill sites. There are multiple possible sources including commercial and industrial products but residential wastewater is often contaminated through normal household cleaning and washing.
Through its members, qldwater is seeking to better understand the source, fate, risk and possible management of PFAS and other emerging contaminants that are released to public sewerage systems. The presence of chemicals in sewage affects the treatment of wastewater and can increase the costs for communities if not carefully managed.
Since at least 2012 the water and sewerage industry in Australia through WSAA has been seeking to work with the key national regulators to manage contaminants such as PFAS at the source, instead of placing the emphasis on public sewage treatment plants which are by their nature the collection point for multiple wastewater-borne chemicals. The three key regulators of chemicals in Australia are:
- The Australian Industrial Chemicals Introduction Scheme (AICIS, formerly the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) which provides a national notification and assessment scheme to protect the public, workers and environment from adverse health effects resulting from industrial chemicals.
- The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) regulates agricultural and veterinary products. The chemistry and efficacy of products is evaluated, as well as the presence of residues in food.
- Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ), an independent statutory agency that develops food standards and codes of practice covering the content and labelling of food.
qldwater members can access additional resources on PFAS from the resource library.
The Queensland Government has a site devoted to environmental incidents and disaster recovery (https://www.qld.gov.au/environment/pollution/management/disasters) including a range of information about chemicals and specific investigations on the historic use of firefighting foam at Queensland sites.
The Commonwealth Department of Health hosts a range of environmental health publications at http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/health-pubhlth-publicat-environ.htm including guidance on environmental hazards, legionella control, the use of rainwater tanks, PFAS and toxicity testing in water.
Queensland Health also publishes periodic notifications, including notifiable conditions at https://www.health.qld.gov.au/clinical-practice/guidelines-procedures/diseases-infection/surveillance/reports/notifiable. While these include all notifications, not those specifically relating to public health conditions relating to drinking water or sewerage services, the data is viewable by region and may be useful as members place greater focus on issues like health based targets for microbial water quality.
The Department of Defence provides information on investigation and management of its national program to review, investigate and implement a comprehensive approach to manage the impacts of PFAS on and in the vicinity of its bases around Australia - see http://www.defence.gov.au/Environment/PFAS/
The Australian Government has a website specifically devoted to PFAS its management in Australia https://www.pfas.gov.au/