PFAS stands for Per- and Poly-Fluoroalkyl Substances
There is an emerging concern globally about the environmental and potential human health impacts of the synthetic chemicals known as PFAS. Recently, the PFAS National Environmental Management Plan (NEMP) was produced through a joint collaboration between the Heads of EPAs Australia and New Zealand and the Department of the Environment and Energy. The PFAS NEMP was released in January 2018 and is due to be updated in mid-2018. It aims to provide a clear, effective approach to regulation of PFAS in the environment and provides a nationally consistent framework for PFAS regulation.
What are PFAS?
PFAS stands for Per- and Poly-Fluoroalkyl Substances, which are a family of synthetic chemicals. They are organofluorine compounds, which consist of multiple fluorine atoms branching off a chain of carbon atoms. The PFAS family contains a number of different chemicals, including perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS). These compounds are extremely stable, and resistant to heat, water and oil, which makes them useful for a variety of purposes. However, their stability also makes them highly persistent in the environment, as they are very resistant to physical, chemical and biological degradation, making treatment and remediation difficult.
How long have we been using PFAS for?
We have been using PFAS for over 50 years. PFAS offer a multitude of uses due to their extreme stability and resistance to heat, water and oil. In Australia, PFAS were commonly used for chromium plating, medical imaging, non-stick cookware and firefighting foam.
Are there any regulations?
The PFAS NEMP aims to provide a nationally consistent approach to regulation of PFAS in the environment. Currently, Australia is considering ratifying the 2009 amendment listing PFOS under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and banning of all non-essential uses of the chemical, and would join the 171 countries which have already done so. The Department of the Environment and Energy released a report in October 2017 recommending ratification of this amendment1.
Why is it so challenging?
Because PFAS compounds are highly soluble, due to the hydrophilic head in their chemical structure, they can readily leach through soil into groundwater and travel long distances. Once this now-contaminated groundwater reaches the surface and enters rivers and lakes, PFAS compounds are able to enter the food web where they bioaccumulate and biomagnify2, particularly PFAS compounds with longer chains. Among some food webs, the level of trophic transfer of PFAS is similar to that of DDT3. The ability of PFAS compounds to migrate long distances from their source, combined with their persistence once they have entered the environment, makes it difficult to treat and remediate contaminated areas.
Is the contamination only starting to be realised?
Potential health issues associated with some types of PFAS compounds have been known about since the early 2000s. However, toxicology data is only available for a small number of PFAS compounds. Additionally, data on the presence of PFAS in the environment not comprehensive.
The degree of contamination is only starting to be realised because of the bioaccumulation and biomagnification of the contaminant in the environment over a long period of time, where levels thousands of times those in the environment may be found in animals, and the effects become more apparent. Like many persistent organic pollutants, by the time the health impacts of the chemical have been identified as problematic by scientists, the contamination may already be widespread in the environment.
The PFAS National Environmental Management Plan
Four corners report on PFAS contamination around Department of Defence sites:
3 Haukås, M., Berger, U., Hop, H., Gulliksen, B. and Gabrielsen, G.W., 2007. Bioaccumulation of per-and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) in selected species from the Barents Sea food web. Environmental Pollution, 148(1), pp.360-371.
Looking ahead to next newsletter:
In our next newsletter, we will talk about where we might find PFAS contamination and what remediation or treatment strategies can be put in place.