PFAS investigation program FAQs

What are PFAS?     

PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) are man-made chemicals that have been widely used in industrial and consumer products since the mid-1900s.

Where are PFAS used?

PFAS have many specialty applications and have been widely used in a range of products in Australia and internationally since the 1950s.

Because of their unique physical and chemical properties, including heat and chemical resistance, PFAS have been used in:

  • textiles and leather products
  • metal plating
  • food packaging
  • firefighting foams
  • floor polishes
  • denture cleanser
  • shampoos
  • coatings and coating additives
  • photographic and photolithographic processes
  • medical devices
  • hydraulic fluids.

Three types of these chemicals – Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS), Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluorohexane Sulfonate (PFHxS) – used to be common ingredients in firefighting foams. These foams were historically used at several defence bases, airports and Fire & Rescue NSW and Rural Fire Service sites across the State.

The import and manufacture of many PFOS-containing products (including firefighting foams and industrial additives) was phased out in Australia by December 2003.  

More information on PFAS is available from the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS).

Where are PFAS found?

Like many chemicals, traces of PFAS are likely to be found in groundwater, surface water and soils in many urban areas due to their wide-spread use in everyday household items and their persistence in the environment.

Where larger amounts of PFAS have been released into the environment, it is possible that elevated concentrations of these chemicals might be found in soil, surface water and ground water. 

Do PFAS have health effects?

There is no consistent evidence of any human health effects related to PFAS exposure however impacts have been found in laboratory animals. Additionally, because human health effects cannot be excluded, and these chemicals take a long time to break down in humans and the environment, the NSW Government is being very cautious.

Much of the research on humans has been done with people who were exposed to relatively high levels of PFAS through their work. Workers involved in the manufacture or use of PFAS usually have higher blood PFAS levels than the general public. Studies on PFAS workers have looked for effects on cholesterol levels, male hormones, heart disease, liver changes and other effects, including cancer. These studies have not consistently shown that PFAS exposure is linked to health problems.

For more information about PFAS and health, please refer to the NSW Health website.

Is there a test to determine any health effects? 

There is no test to determine if you are likely to have any health effects from exposure to PFOS and PFOA. There are no medical conditions that have been proven to be caused by PFOS or PFOA exposure in humans.

For more information about PFAS and health, please refer to the NSW Health website.

Why is the NSW EPA conducting an investigation of the legacy of PFAS use across NSW?  

PFOS and PFOA are both very stable chemicals that do not break down in the environment and can persist for a long time in the environment.

The EPA is investigating to better understand the extent of PFAS use and contamination in NSW. This way the EPA will be better prepared to respond if any health and environmental impacts become known. 

The EPA’s PFAS investigation program is a precautionary approach to managing the legacy of PFAS use in NSW. It recognises that PFAS are ubiquitous in the global environment in low concentrations, due to their use in a wide range of products and their persistent nature. As a result, the EPA is investigating sites where the greatest usage of PFAS containing products has taken place and where there is the potential for environmental contamination.

Where is the EPA investigating?

The EPA is prioritising investigations at sites where, in the past, PFAS were used in significant quantities.

The investigation will focus on sites including airports, firefighting training facilities and some industrial sites, and where it is determined there are exposure pathways that may increase people’s contact with the chemicals, such as bore and surface water usage.

The EPA will examine PFAS contamination in soil and water at these sites and also off-site where contamination is likely to have extended beyond site boundaries.

Commonwealth agencies, such as the Department of Defence and Airservices Australia, may carry out their own investigations for PFAS contamination. As the EPA is a state authority, its ability to regulate Commonwealth bodies is limited, including onsite testing and compliance and enforcement actions. However, the EPA is committed to working collaboratively with these agencies.

Find more information about PFAS investigations at the Department of Defence and Airservices Australia websites.

How is the investigation being undertaken?

The EPA is working with other NSW Government agencies to better understand the potential risks posed to human health and the environment from PFAS.

The EPA will work with occupiers and owners of sites to collect samples of soils and/or waters for indicative analysis for PFAS, and to identify exposure pathways.

If significant PFAS concentrations levels are detected at a specific location and exposure pathways are identified, a more detailed assessment will be undertaken and remediation may be warranted.

The findings of the investigation are made public as they become available. 

What regulatory action is the EPA taking?

The EPA will follow its standard practices in the application of its regulatory powers as outlined in the EPA Compliance Policy and Prosecution Guidelines.

For sites where the EPA is the environmental regulator it may issue statutory notices requiring further investigation and appropriate remediation and management of sites in NSW.

How are people exposed to PFAS?

Most people come into contact with PFAS through eating food and drinking water containing small amounts of PFAS; and by using everyday products like cosmetics, shaving cream, water-repellent sprays and non-stick cookware.

Like many chemicals, traces of PFAS are likely to be found in groundwater, surface water and soils in many urban areas due to their wide-spread use in everyday household items and their persistence in the environment.

Although trace levels of these substances are common, the general population in NSW and around Australia are largely not impacted by historical PFAS use and environmental contamination.

For specific areas where elevated PFAS contamination has been identified, the ways people are most likely to be exposed is through drinking contaminated bore water or surface water, or eating home grown produce where this water has been used (such as eggs, milk, meat, fruit or vegetables) or eating seafood caught in affected areas.   

If you live in an area where elevated levels of PFAS have been detected, the NSW EPA will work with you to identify potential exposure pathways and to provide advice to reduce or eliminate your exposure to PFAS until further analysis is completed.

How are safe PFAS levels determined?

On 3 April 2017, the Commonwealth Department of Health released the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) guidelines for Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) and Food Guidance for per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

This process is part of the usual practice of establishing food standards in Australia, and determines the safe level (tolerable daily intake or TDI) at which people can consume food or water containing PFAS.

If you live in an area where elevated levels of PFAS have been detected, the NSW EPA will work with you to identify potential exposure pathways and to provide advice to reduce or eliminate your exposure to PFAS until further analysis is completed.

Where can I get more information?

If you have any questions about the EPA’s PFAS investigation program, please call the Environment Line on 131 555 or email info@environment.nsw.gov.au

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