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Environment Protection Authority

PFAS investigation program FAQs

What are PFAS?     

PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) are a group of chemicals that include perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

Do PFAS have health effects? 

PFAS are an emerging contaminant, which means that they do not have established health standards; and their ecological and/or human health effects are unclear.  

International research has not confirmed whether there are any adverse human health effects related to PFAS exposure.

Where there is not enough scientific evidence to assess health effects in humans, any effects in animals are then assessed. By way of example, studies with animals have indicated that PFOA, but not PFOS, may be associated with some cancers. However, it is not clear if these results have implications for human health.

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

A factsheet developed by the Environmental Health Standing Committee (enHealth) and endorsed by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee on 15 March 2016, provides more information on PFAS and human health. The factsheet is available from the Department of Health website. enHealth includes representatives from Commonwealth, State and Territory health departments as well as the National Health and Medical Research Council. enHealth is responsible for providing advice on environmental health matters at a national level.

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.

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.

The import and manufacture of many PFOS-containing products (including firefighting foams and industrial additives) was phased out in Australia by December 2003. PFOA production was expected to be phased-out in the US by 2015.

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.

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

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

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 water usage, surface water usage or fishing.

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.

The initial investigation program is expected to take around six months to complete.

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 will be made public when they are 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?

Due to their widespread use in everyday and specialty products, almost everyone is exposed to low levels of PFOS and PFOA from the air, indoor dust, food, water, and various consumer products. 

Specific contamination can lead to higher exposures through contaminated food, especially seafood and drinking water.

How does the EPA determine safe PFAS levels?

There are currently no Australian criteria for PFOS and PFOA, or other PFAS. 

The NSW EPA is working with government agencies and specialist consultants to establish Australian criteria for these chemicals. The EPA is continuing to work with the NSW Government and with its interstate and international colleagues to ensure appropriate criteria are being applied as knowledge about these chemicals emerges. 

The EPA is aware of current international cases of PFAS contamination, and the international research into developing and reviewing criteria used for environmental assessment. 

What is the relationship between PFOS-based fire-fighting foams and fish kills?

Recent media reporting about the environmental impact of PFAS, suggest that there is a direct correlation between PFOS, PFOA and mass fish deaths in inland waterways (referred to as a fish kill).

Before 2008, PFOS was present in fire-fighting foams but PFOA was minimal. In a firefighting situation, the PFOS content in firefighting foams may have contributed to fish kills if foams were released directly into natural waterways. However it is likely that the major contributors to any fish kills would have been runoff from the fire or short-lived chemicals in the foam (not PFOS).   

It is incorrect to suggest that historic fire-training contamination could lead to a PFOS-caused fish kill today. Since PFOS-based fire-fighting foams were phased out in NSW in 2008, dilution and other natural processes would have reduced residual PFOS concentrations in any waterways to below the range that can cause acute lethal effects to fish.

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

Page last updated: 25 November 2016