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NSW State of the Environment 2012

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SoE 2012 > Land > 3.2 Chemicals in the NSW environment


Land chapter 3

3.2 Chemicals in the NSW environment

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3.2 Chemicals in the NSW environment

The presence of hazardous chemicals in consumer products has been identified as an emerging issue.

The National Waste Policy identified hazardous chemicals in consumer products as an emerging issue, while the Productivity Commission recently made recommendations for identifying and dealing with the risks of chemicals from consumer products.

Existing chemicals available for use in Australia are largely unassessed, with limited risk-based guidance available to provide chemical users and consumers with information on which chemicals are safer and less environmentally hazardous. The National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) has a goal to screen 3000 industrial chemicals for potential health and environmental risks within four years.

There has been an increase in reports of potentially contaminated sites in New South Wales – approximately 970 since December 2009 – following amendments to the Contaminated Land Management Act 1997 which clarified notification reporting requirements. A majority of the significantly contaminated or potentially contaminated sites are associated with leaking underground petroleum storage systems.

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NSW indicators

Indicator and status


Information availability

Number of regulated contaminated sites



Exceedences of maximum residue levels in food and produce



Notes: Terms and symbols used above are defined in About SoE 2012 at the front of the report.

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Manufactured chemicals play an essential role in the production of foods, equipment, fuels, goods, cosmetics, medicines and many other products and services that maintain and improve our quality of life. Chemicals, however, can also present risks to human health and the environment during their manufacture, use and disposal.

NSW is part of a national chemicals management system that applies across various sectors of the economy, including primary production, industry, pharmaceuticals and construction. Management of chemicals involves assessing the risk of any potential hazards that may arise through a chemical's life cycle by examining the information available on its toxicity and how humans and the environment are exposed to it via intended uses and disposal pathways. Responsibilities for regulating chemicals are shared, with Commonwealth assessment and control of them up to point-of-sale and states and territories regulating their use, disposal and emissions. The national system operates within the context of international treaties and obligations agreed to by Australia.

This section broadly examines the information available on the potential impacts of manufactured chemicals on human health and the environment in NSW and the responses to these.

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Status and trends

Assessing the risk from manufactured chemicals relies on comprehensive information about chemicals in the environment as well as their exposure levels and effects on living things. Assessment informs many decisions that need to be made, including for regulators about which chemicals require stricter controls or removal from use; for chemical users looking to use safer chemicals in manufacturing and production; and for consumers wishing to make more ecologically sustainable purchases. However information about the impacts of chemicals on the environment and living things is only available for a relatively small number of chemicals. Current understanding of the acute effects of single chemicals is well-studied, as are the chronic effects of certain types of chemicals, such as heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants.

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Chemicals in the environment

There is limited data on the levels, fate and distribution of commercial chemicals and their breakdown products in the NSW environment. When exposure levels are not available, information on chemical releases or use is often used as a surrogate for exposure. However, good information is available on contaminated sites and chemical residues in food. Contaminated land and sediments, which are primarily legacies of poor waste management and past industrial practices, have been actively regulated for decades in NSW. Data on contaminated sites and chemical residues in food and produce has been reported for some time and current indicators for chemicals in the NSW environment are based on these and similar sources of data.

Chemical releases to the environment

Data on the total load of chemicals released into the environment has been estimated using the total volumes manufactured and/or imported or used. These estimates show that very large amounts are released into the environment, either directly during manufacturing or use or indirectly when products containing the chemicals degrade over time.

The Australian National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) reports on the releases of 93 chemicals across Australia from various sources, including mines, power stations and factories, as well as houses and transport. The program was designed to provide information to the community about those chemicals recognised as posing risks and typically targets pollutants released in large volumes (see Atmosphere 2.1).

Chemical release data is also reported for point sources on many premises that are licensed under the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997. In NSW, recent changes designed to strengthen this legislation will make monitoring data publicly available for the first time. The chemicals covered in this reporting, as for the NPI, primarily target those known to pose risks.

Ambient monitoring data

A relatively small number of chemical pollutants are monitored in different parts of the NSW environment, including in water, air, soil, sediments and household dust for a variety of specific purposes. This monitoring is used to evaluate compliance of licensed premises with licence conditions, determine whether the restrictions on emissions and discharges from licensed premises are appropriate, and assess the risks from a particular substance or contaminated site.

The information available shows that numerous chemicals are found throughout the NSW environment in complex mixtures (with individual chemicals mostly present at very low levels). Examples include personal care products and endocrine disruptors in biosolids (Langdon et al. 2011) and the fluorinated chemicals used in many consumer and industrial applications in Sydney Harbour (Thompson et al. 2011). Consumer products are an important source of chemical pollutants in the environment and include pharmaceuticals, personal care products and chemicals leaching from tiny pieces of plastic arising from the partial breakdown of waste plastic and the washing of synthetic textiles and clothing (ASoEC 2011).

Contaminated land data

Significantly contaminated land is regulated under the Contaminated Land Management Act 1997 (CLM Act). Sites declared contaminated have data recorded about them, including the types and levels of contaminants and stage of remediation. However, this information cannot be used to make inferences about overall chemical levels in soils across the state. This is because these regulated sites are special cases of intensive use of hazardous chemicals typically over long periods, where known poor management practices were involved or particular sectors or activities (such as petroleum storage) operated. Contaminated sites that do not pose an unacceptable risk under the current or approved use are regulated under the planning process using the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 and State Environmental Planning Policy No. 55 – Remediation of Land.

In April 2012, approximately 300 contaminated sites had been reported and were being regulated under the CLM Act (Map 3.6). Key contaminating activities include service stations and other petroleum industrial sites (37% of contaminated sites), chemical, metal and other industrial sites (10%, 7% and 16%, respectively) and former gasworks and landfill sites (12% and 9%, respectively).

Map 3.6: Contaminated sites regulated and reported under the Contaminated Land Management Act 1997 in NSW

Map 3.6

The number of potentially contaminated sites being reported has increased due to passage of the Contaminated Land Management Amendment Act 2008 which improved the clarity of reporting requirements under the CLM Act. Approximately 970 have been notified since December 2009, after new triggers for notification and regulatory action were based on endorsed national guideline criteria rather than the previously used concept of 'significant risk of harm'. This large increase in the number of contaminated sites being reported to the NSW Government compares with around 500 site notifications received between 1998 and 2009. Screening of the sites reported since December 2009 has identified a further 150 sites that will be regulated under the CLM Act.

By June 2011, the NSW Government had facilitated the remediation of around 100 sites since 1997. Between July 2008 and June 2011, 32 sites were remediated under the CLM Act.

A number of large remediation projects have been completed in 2012, including the Rhodes Peninsula in Sydney and BHP Billiton's Hunter River remediation. Rhodes Peninsula, which has undergone remediation since the 1980s, has resulted in productive land being turned into a populous residential area open to the community. Finalisation of the remediation at the Hunter River site in Mayfield has been deemed Australia's largest-ever sediment remediation project. Its completion marks the removal of the risks posed to the aquatic environment and enables redevelopment of a former contaminated site, with improved access to the river and better opportunity for local industries still operating there.

Since the commencement of the Protection of the Environment Operations (Underground Petroleum Storage Systems) Regulation in 2008, more sites with leaking underground storage systems have been investigated. This has led to over 750 sites with leaking fuels being reported. Leaks from underground systems can go unnoticed for many years and cause significant environmental and financial impacts on the communities affected.

Contaminated food and produce

The inappropriate or illegal use of chemicals in farming, silviculture and horticulture, and leakage from contaminated land can leave residues and contaminants in produce intended for human or animal consumption. Information on chemical residues in food is available through national programs that test for a number of chemicals. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) publishes the Australian Total Diet Studies, which report comprehensive data every two years on consumers' dietary exposure to a range of food chemicals. The program recently found that dietary exposures to agricultural and veterinary chemical residues were all below the relevant reference health standards, consistent with the findings from previous studies of this kind (FSANZ 2011).

The National Residue Survey analyses samples of animal and plant food products in Australia for the presence of chemical residues and environmental contaminants, such as heavy metals. Chemical and commodity combinations for sampling are self-nominated by participating industries. During 2009–10, samples were collected from 21 grain commodities and products, pulses and oilseeds, and five horticultural commodities. The overall rate of compliance remained very high, consistent with previous surveys (DAFF 2011).

FSANZ also conducts one-off analytical surveys that target particular chemical contaminants that may be present in food, such as bisphenol A, dioxins and brominated flame retardants. In 2010, FSANZ analysed the levels of bisphenol A in food and drinks available in Australia. This chemical is used in many applications, including the lining of food and beverage packaging, to protect food from contamination. Only a limited number of products were found with detectable levels of bisphenol A, well below the levels of potential concern (FSANZ 2010).

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Chemicals in living things

Effective mechanisms for detecting and mitigating acute impacts arising from exposure to chemicals are in place in NSW. However, it is not clear whether the chemicals that have been detected in the NSW environment as a result of human-related activities are causing adverse ecological or human health impacts in the long term. In order to rigorously assess this, better information is needed about chemical levels found in living things. Overseas monitoring of a selected number of chemicals has shown that, while the general public is widely exposed to mixtures of hundreds of manufactured chemicals (or their breakdown products), the levels of individual chemical components are generally present at levels well below those expected to pose risks (CDC 2009). One small study found 287 commercial chemicals, pesticides and pollutants in the umbilical cord blood of 10 newborn infants (EWG 2005).

Monitoring for the presence in NSW people and the environment of persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals (chemicals known to pose risks at relatively low levels) is mostly based on one-off activities, generally at single locations and points in time. For example, chemical residues in fish have been monitored to determine whether they should be eaten; blood-lead levels in children have been measured to determine the effectiveness of regulatory campaigns and lead management programs; and a small number of chemicals in animals killed at roadsides have been measured to determine the levels in wildlife and the effectiveness of pest abatement programs.

This monitoring, although limited, has shown that pollutants like triclosan (used in consumer products), brominated flame retardants (chemicals applied to prevent electronics, clothes and furniture from catching fire) and fluorinated chemicals are all found at low levels in NSW in humans (Toms et al. 2008; Toms et al. 2011) and flora and fauna (Thompson et al. 2011). Monitoring has also demonstrated the effectiveness of regulatory programs and health campaigns in greatly reducing chemical levels in people and other living things, such as the phasing out the use of lead in petrol (Gulson et al. 2006; Boreland et al. 2008).

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Effects of chemicals on humans and the environment

There is growing evidence that chemicals in the environment may contribute to a range of adverse human health and environmental impacts (Diamanti-Kandarakis et al. 2009), including certain cancers (PCP 2010), asthma, developmental disorders (Grandjean et al. 2008), reproductive impairment, neurodegenerative conditions (such as Parkinson's disease), diabetes (Patel et al. 2010) and obesity (Holtcamp 2012). In particular, concerns have been raised about the potential impacts of manufactured chemicals, including those released from certain consumer products, on children and pregnant women (AAoP 2011).

Although the impacts posed by chemical exposures are complex and therefore attract considerable debate, some negative effects are well-documented, for example in the case of lead, asbestos and many pesticides. Toxicity varies depending on the amount an organism is exposed to (even water is harmful if ingested in very large quantities); the timing (certain stages in a life cycle, such as during early stages of development, have been shown to be particularly vulnerable); and the presence of other exacerbating factors, such as poor nutrition, stress and other chemicals.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is particularly concerned about those substances that may be hazardous, but which have not yet been characterised as such due to a lack of toxicity data and are therefore not listed anywhere as being priority pollutants that require controls (OECD 2001a). Possible combined effects of exposure to mixtures of numerous chemicals at low levels in the environment or in consumer goods, especially young children, are receiving particular attention by scientists, policymakers and community groups (Bonnefoi et al. 2010). Furthermore, some adult diseases are linked to early-life or even prenatal exposures (EEA 2010).

Most Australian data on chemical-related health effects relate to acute effects and high exposure levels, for example, data collected by Poisons Information Centres (NSWPIC, VPIC, QldPIC and WAPIC), rather than potential effects related to environmental exposures which are typically chronic low doses. As the chronic exposure data to chemicals is unavailable, assessments are performed to estimate the risks on a case-by-case basis.

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A number of pressures will have an impact on the regulation of chemicals. These include the growing global population and greatly increasing global production of chemicals, technological changes, climate change in relation to the fate, distribution, and even toxicity of chemicals, and finally the increased drive for sustainability.

Figure 3.2 shows projected increases in global chemical production compared with global population growth. Production is expected to grow 3% per year, while population increases 0.77%. On this trajectory, chemical production will jump 330% by 2050, compared with a 47% increase in population, relative to the year 2000 (OECD 2001b; UoC 2008). This imbalance will not necessarily lead to increased risks to human health and the environment if the toxicity and persistence of chemicals manufactured and used are significantly reduced through cleaner production approaches. There is increasing consumer demand for safer chemicals and a growing number of businesses are capitalising on this trend, simultaneously reducing their liabilities and the extra regulatory requirements associated with using more hazardous substances (Environment California 2010).

Figure 3.2: Projected increases in global population and chemical production

Figure 3.2

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Source: OECD 2001b

Technological changes will bring both potential benefits and potential risks. For example, nanotechnology is being used to tackle a range of environmental issues, including purifying water, monitoring pollutants in the environment and more efficient generation of energy. However, there has been much discussion about the potential for the unique features of nanomaterials to pose new environmental, health, occupational and general safety hazards. The challenge for society is to realise the benefits of technologies but be alert to potential risks and take appropriate and timely action to avoid them.

Climate change will affect the quantity, fate and transport of chemicals released to the environment. For example, as global average temperatures rise, additional unintentional releases of chemicals to the environment are expected following accidental fires in buildings and landfills. Changes in rainfall patterns and a greater frequency and intensity of storms in some regions will increase and widen the distribution of debris containing a range of contaminants, such as asbestos and heavy metals. Landfills and contaminated sites may need better flood protection upstream and contamination barriers downstream to filter the groundwater leaching out of them (CRC CARE 2012). The melting of ice, which has previously trapped persistent organic pollutants and other contaminants, is leading to recirculation of these substances back into the environment (Ma et al. 2011). Increased ambient temperatures, such as might occur with climate change, may cause mean metabolic rates to increase in cold-blooded animals (such as reptiles, fish and invertebrates), possibly altering their susceptibility to the toxicity of some chemicals. For example, one NSW study found that exposure to a chemical at a level formerly believed to be harmless actually affected the ability of fish to tolerate higher water temperatures (Patra et al. 2007).

A key challenge for achieving a sustainable society will be to balance or otherwise address trade-offs so that environmental improvements in one area do not introduce new or increased risks elsewhere. This is particularly important with respect to resource recovery. For example, successful water saving campaigns will increase the concentration of contaminants in sewerage treatment plant discharges as the volume of discharges from plants decreases, potentially increasing risks to the aquatic environment. Similarly, NSW policy recognises that beneficial reuse of wastes must ensure that this does not cause the dispersal of hazardous substances into the environment (see People and the Environment 1.3). These considerations also apply to protecting and conserving water, air and soil resources.

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In response to an increasing production of chemicals, new information about the presence of chemicals in living things and the environment, and a growing understanding of the potential associated risks, greater attention is being paid to the appropriate regulation of chemicals. This is reflected in the number of chemical-related reviews, regulations and proposals worldwide and in Australia.

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Established responses

An increasing number of international agreements recognise the need for appropriate controls throughout the entire life cycle of chemicals. In the case of persistent bioaccumulative toxic substances, this has meant action early in the life cycle by preventing the use or generation of these chemicals: for example, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (the Stockholm Convention) aims to eliminate or restrict the production and use of persistent organic pollutants (POPs). In 2010, nine more pollutants were proposed to be added to the list in addition to the original 12, including certain pesticides and industrial chemicals such as DDT, PCBs and dioxin. Newly listed chemicals include lindane (a pesticide no longer used in Australia and soon to be prohibited), pentachlorophenol (an industrial by-product), certain flame retardants (no longer used in new products in Australia) and PFOS (used in a wide range of products and processes).

At the state level, the following legislation controls the use or release of chemicals into the environment:

NSW has taken the following action to reduce risks arising from present and past activities involving chemicals:

  • The Protection of the Environment Operations (Underground Petroleum Storage Systems) Regulation, which commenced in June 2008, focuses on a preventative approach to minimising the risk of soil and groundwater contamination from leaking underground storage tanks. In recent years, industry in NSW has adopted best recognised practices for the operation of underground systems, such as inventory control and regular monitoring of systems. These practices have helped reduce the risk of fuels leaking from the storage systems and thus the risk of serious harm to the local community and environment.
  • A campaign was completed in 2011 to reduce chemical emissions from industry that caused photochemical smog in Sydney and Illawarra. Licence conditions under the POEO Act required major industries to adapt their operations to alternative, more efficient and cleaner methods and materials production. As a result of shifting to a cleaner production approach, much of major industry reaped many benefits, in particular, saving operational costs associated with raw materials and energy.
  • In October 2011, a survey of NSW businesses and research organisations that work with nanotechnology or nanomaterials sought to better understand their operations, including workplace practices and knowledge gaps in the use and handling of these materials. The information from the survey will be used to inform further work by the government in relation to nanotechnology, including helping regulators to monitor safe work practices and understand the risks associated with this emerging technology.
  • In 2009–10, a program of bilingual extension officer services aimed to increase the participation of farmers from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds in mandatory training courses on the safe use of pesticides. The ongoing courses also promote best practice methods for using chemicals that reduce the risks to human health and the environment.
  • Preventative strategies are being implemented for certain high-risk industries, such as sites with underground petrol storage systems, marinas, galvanisers and timber treatment sites. Strategies include targeted environmental audits, identification of best practice measures, and revisions to licensing conditions.

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Developing responses

Given the division of responsibilities for regulating chemicals between state and national governments and the desire to harmonise legislation, much of the work to develop policies and programs that promote effective controls on chemicals is coordinated at the national level. The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) has nominated chemicals and plastics as a priority for regulatory reform and reducing red tape (COAG 2009). A 2008 study by the Productivity Commission recommended a broad range of reforms, many of which have now been endorsed by COAG (Productivity Commission 2008).

NSW has been very active in these reforms covering industrial chemicals, agricultural and veterinary chemicals, waste and consumer products. NSW is working with other jurisdictions to implement reforms to achieve a national approach to managing the impact of chemicals on the environment through the National Framework for Chemicals Environmental Management (NChEM). The COAG Standing Council on Environment and Water is overseeing these reforms which are discussed below.

Industrial chemicals

The potential environmental and health risks of industrial chemicals are assessed under the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS). All new chemicals are assessed before being marketed in Australia, except when chemicals are eligible for an exemption. However, as in other countries, 39,000 older chemicals that were on the market prior to the establishment of the scheme may be used without assessment. NICNAS is planning to evaluate approximately 3000 chemicals within the next four years as part of the staged implementation of a new Inventory Multi-tiered Assessment and Prioritisation Framework. This is the first time that information about the risks associated with a large group of industrial chemicals will be available to regulators, chemicals users and consumers. It will help inform choices about the use of safer chemicals and the identification of appropriate controls for those still in use.

Agricultural and veterinary chemicals

In late 2011, the Australian Government announced a range of proposed enhancements to the legislation governing the operation of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, which is responsible for the regulation of these chemicals up to, and including, their point-of-sale. The proposed reforms are expected to result in improved health and environment protection for the broader community by requiring companies to regularly demonstrate that their chemicals meet health and environmental standards and placing an upper limit on the time taken for chemical reviews. In many cases, particularly for low-risk products, the proposed amendments will reform the current system to provide more timely outcomes. The proposed reforms also introduce a time limit on the approval and registration of agricultural and veterinary chemicals, providing a periodic review of a chemical's safety.

Product stewardship and waste management

Important reforms in waste policy and product stewardship are being progressed nationally. The National Waste Policy: Less waste, more resources (EPHC 2009), agreed to by all Australian environment ministers in 2009, leads the way for a new, coherent, efficient and environmentally responsible approach to waste management in Australia. It establishes a comprehensive work program for national coordinated action on waste across six key areas, including reducing hazard and risk in products. This is the first time that reducing the toxicity of chemicals in products has been recognised, putting Australia in line with other countries at the forefront of ecologically sustainable approaches. National Product Stewardship legislation has been passed recently. This important development will require producers to take more responsibility for their products, including reducing the toxicity of ingredients (see People and the Environment 1.3).

A growing number of non-government initiatives are encouraging a progressive approach to chemicals management through substitution of hazardous substances with safer alternatives, including non-chemical options. For example, a new $72.8-million green chemistry and engineering project announced in 2010 is developing a Green Chemical Futures facility at Monash University in Victoria. This nationally co-funded initiative will provide opportunities for the Plastics and Chemical Industries Association, CSIRO and other partnering institutions from Australia and overseas, including the United States, India and Japan, to develop and promote environmentally safer chemicals. The project is an expansion of work undertaken at the Centre for Green Chemistry at Monash University, which currently conducts innovative research, develops and promotes green chemistry in educational materials, and provides training in sustainable chemical policy for regulators.

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Future opportunities

The OECD has identified chemicals in the environment and in products, particularly persistent bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals, as a 'red light' issue (OECD 2001a). Views on how to respond effectively to these concerns have been changing. Until recently, regulatory attention worldwide focused on managing risks at the end of a chemical's life cycle through regulating emissions, discharges and wastes – the so-called end-of-pipe approach. The human and financial costs associated with legacy issues from once commonly used chemicals, such as asbestos, CFCs and DDT, are encouraging a shift toward the use of safer, greener chemicals at the outset.

The primary difficulty in chemicals management, however, is the lack of knowledge about the properties, effects and exposure patterns of the great majority of chemicals, industrial chemicals in particular. Many programs are under way worldwide, including in Australia, to address this concern, leading to much new information about chemical risks and better alternatives. Examples are the existing NICNAS chemical assessment and prioritisation program and the Monash University Green Chemical Futures program. This new information will support application of the substitution principle (choosing safer chemicals) and open up opportunities for its use in sustainability programs.

The initial focus of many sustainability initiatives has been on reducing the use of energy and water as well as the generation of waste. It is not clear how successful this has been in promoting the development and use of greener chemicals or non-chemical alternatives. This crucial aspect of sustainability, however, may be given more attention in NSW as new information about the risks of chemicals and their alternatives becomes available. For example, overseas, organisations, including retailers, manufacturing and hospitals, are developing their own chemicals policies and action plans, going well beyond current regulatory requirements (Environment California 2010). These proactive approaches include using screening tools to identify potentially hazardous substances as well as developing their own lists of priority substances to phase out of their operations and supply chains. There are opportunities to explore similar initiatives in NSW.

Current indicators focus on chemicals at the end of their life cycle, that is, chemical residues in food or chemicals in contaminated sites. As more data becomes available, indicators that provide a more comprehensive picture regarding chemical impacts on the environment may be developed.

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