The PFAS facts
What is PFAS?
Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are manufactured chemicals used in products that are resistant to heat, grease and water and include perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHXS).
PFAS have been used in Australia and around the world in many common household products and specialty applications, including: • non-stick cookware
• fabric, furniture and carpet stain protection applications
• food packaging, and
• some industrial processes.
PFAS are known to be present in legacy formulations of aqueous film forming foam (AFFF). AFFF is a fire-fighting foam that has been used extensively worldwide, and within Australia, from about the 1970s by both civilian and military authorities due to its effectiveness in extinguishing liquid fuel fires. Legacy formulations of AFFF contained a number of PFAS that are now known to be persistent in the environment and in humans.
Most people living in developed nations have some PFAS in their body as a result of their widespread use.
The effects of PFAS substances are largely unknown, but it is understood that they persist in the environment (water and soil) for an extended period without breaking down.
PFAS investigation process.
Defence is undertaking environmental investigations in accordance with the National Environment Protection (Assessment of Site Contamination) Measure 1999. There are three main steps to the investigation process: a Preliminary Site Investigation (PSI); a Detailed Site Investigation (DSI); and a Human Health and Ecological Risk Assessment, depending on test results.
Defence completed the first stage of the investigation, the PSI, at RAAF Base East Sale in September 2016. The PSI included engagement with local community, reviewing site history and identifying PFAS sources, as well as preliminary sampling of bores near the base.
In September 2016, Defence commenced the second stage, the DSI, which includes: sampling in soil, groundwater, surface water and drainage lines; investigating and modelling how PFAS moves through the environment; and preparing the DSI report.
Results from the initial sampling conducted for the DSI confirmed that a Human Health Risk Assessment was required.
How can PFAS affect people’s health?
In humans, there is no consistent evidence that PFAS cause any specific illnesses, including cancer.
However, since these chemicals remain in humans and the environment for many years, it is recommended that, as a precaution, human exposure to PFAS be minimised.
Research into potential health effects of PFAS is ongoing around the world. To date, there is not enough information available to definitively say what, if any, health effects may be caused by exposure to PFAS.
As part of the Australian Government’s response to PFAS contamination at Defence sites, the Australian National University has been commissioned to undertake an epidemiological study (a health study that looks at patterns of disease in a population) of two sites in Australia — Williamtown in New South Wales and Oakey in Queensland. This study is expected to add to understanding the effects of PFAS on health in this population.
In studies where large doses of PFAS are given to laboratory animals, possible links with effects on the immune system, liver, reproduction, development and benign (non-cancer) tumours have been identified. However, studies in people have not provided definitive results. PFAS behaves differently in the bodies of animals compared to humans, so effects shown in one animal may not mean the same thing happens in humans.
Possible links between PFOS and PFOA exposure and several health effects have been reported in epidemiological studies around the world. However, many of these findings have been inconsistent, with some studies identifying problems and others finding none. Where changes in the body have been noticed, it has been unclear if they would have a significant effect on the health of the person. Organisations that study toxic chemicals have concluded it is not possible to identify any definite links due to problems with study designs and contradictions in study results. (Source: Australian Government Department of Health)
Each Department of Defence investigation has a project team and a website. For updates in RAAF East Sale visit www.defence.gov.au/environment/pfas/eastsale