PFAS-inating times: New Guidance for the assessment, management and remediation of PFAS contamination in Australia

In the last two weeks, two new and long awaited guidance documents have been released in relation to the assessment and management of per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS):

  • A 5-part technical report on “Assessment, management and remediation for PFOS and PFOA” prepared by the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE Guidance); and
  • The “Perfluorinated Chemicals in Food” report and the supporting “Hazard Assessment Report – PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS” prepared by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), which establishes final health-based guidance values in the form of ‘Tolerable Daily Intake’ for PFOS/PFHxS and PFOA (FSANZ Report).

These guidance documents demonstrate an increasing recognition within Australia about PFAS, including its potential human and ecological health impacts. However, these guidance documents also highlight how much is still unknown about PFAS and the ongoing challenges associated with seeking to regulate the assessment, management and remediation of a contaminant of emerging concern.

What is PFAS?

PFAS are a large group of man-made chemicals that have been used since the 1950s. The most commonly known and regulated PFAS compounds are perfluorooctane sulfanate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), however  there are thousands of other PFAS compounds. PFAS is mostly commonly linked with its use in fire-fighting foams, but the compounds are also found in a wide range of other household and industrial applications, including in stain resistant coatings for fabric, leather and clothes, Teflon cookware, hydraulic fuel additives, chrome plating and paints.

PFAS have a number of characteristics which has contributed to the global recognition that these contaminants are of emerging concern and has led to exponential growth in scientific and environmental investigation of the substances over recent years. In particular, PFASs are very stable, persistent in the environment and bioaccumulate in both humans and the environment. PFAS are also known to strongly bind to soil particles and are also highly mobile in groundwater. As a result, these compounds have been known to be transported significant distances from where the original PFAS source is located.

The toxicity of PFAS, particularly its impact on human health, remains uncertain due in most part to limited information. The current health advice is that there is no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse health effects in humans, however a precautionary approach has been adopted globally while further research is conducted.

Regulation and Guidance on PFAS

On a global scale, recognition of PFAS as being a contaminant of potential concern, first occurred when PFOS was added to the United Nations Stockholm Convention which aims to protect human health and the environment from the effects of Persistent Organic Pollutants. Whilst Australia is a signatory to this Convention, Australia is yet to ratify the addition of PFOS.

In Australia, as with the remainder of the world, the regulation of PFAS and the assessment and management of PFAS contamination is still being established. The CRC CARE Guidance and the FSANZ Report are two important steps in helping to establish these frameworks.

CRC CARE Guidance

The CRC CARE Guidance, which was released in late March 2017, is the culmination of extensive work by regulators, scientific experts and industry, with the aim to develop practical, user-friendly national guidance for practitioners, industry, regulators and owners/occupiers in the management of PFOS and PFOA contamination.

The 5-part technical report includes:

  • Human health and ecological screening levels for PFOS and PFOA contamination in groundwater, surface water, fish consumption and sediment;
  • A framework and discussion regarding the application of these screening levels; and
  • A risk-based approach to the management and remediation of PFOS and PFOA contamination.

The CRC CARE Guidance states that it is intended to complement a National Remediation Framework which is also currently being developed by CRC CARE.

The opening pages of each part of the CRC CARE Guidance identifies that the guidance should be regarded as both draft and interim on the basis that the health based screening levels contained in the guidance are based on the health-based reference values endorsed enHealth in 2016 and that, should revised values be released, then the health derived values in the CRC CARE Guidance will need to be updated. As discussed in more detail below, this happened a matter of days later when, on 3 April 2017, the FSANZ Report was released. As a result, CRC CARE has announced that it will revise its guidance accordingly and publish the updated guidance as soon as possible.

FSANZ Report

A matter of days later, on 3 April 2017, the FSANZ Report was released, which established final health-based guidance values in the form of ‘Tolerable Daily Intake’ for PFOS/PFHxS and PFOA and replaced the interim reference values endorsed by enHealth in 2016.

The final health-based guidance values contained in the FSANZ Report are lower than the interim levels endorsed by enHealth:

Toxicity reference value PFOS/PFHxS PFOA
Final Value (FSANZ) Interim Value (enHealth) Final Value
(FSANZ)
Interim Value
(enHealth)
Tolerable Daily Intake (μg/kg/d) 0.02 0.15 0.16 1.5
Drinking Water Quality Guideline (μg/L) 0.07 0.5 0.56 5
Recreational Water Quality Guideline (μg/L) 0.7 5 5.6 50

Whilst the report and the supporting Summaries and Factsheets prepared by the Department of Health identify that both the interim values and the revised, final values are precautionary and protective of human health, the significant decrease in the reference values may cause concern and confusion amongst the regulators, land managers and the community alike. These revised values may also result in the need for further assessments or reassessments to be undertaken in some areas.

A continually evolving space

In the days following the release of both CRC CARE Guidance and the FZAANZ Report, the Heads of the EPAs Australia and New Zealand (HEPA) and the Commonwealth Department of Environment and Energy hosted a PFAS Summit in Melbourne. This summit provide an opportunity for discussion between technical experts in the environmental and health regulation of PFAS from Australian regulators and international jurisdictions, including a representative from the US Environment Protection Authority and the German Environment Agency. The aim of the Summit was to establish a series of recommendation to inform the development of a  PFAS National Management Plan.

There also continues to be ongoing engagement and discussion regarding PFAS assessment and management across numerous Government and expert committees and working groups, a National Taskforce and an increasing number of scientific and community forums on PFAS. In addition, and against this backdrop, there continues to be a number of site investigations undertaken in areas known or believed to be impacted by PFAS contamination, and management and remediation options continue to be investigated and undertaken by land owners, regulators, policy makers and the scientific community.

Where to from here?

The example of the CRC CARE Guidance requiring updates within 4 days of publication provides a snapshot of the complexity and rapid evolution of regulation and guidance in relation to PFAS investigation, management and regulation. The CRC CARE Guidance and the FSANZ Report each also highlight the ongoing uncertainty in relation to the impacts of PFAS contamination and the need for further research to be undertaken. However, the evolving scientific guidance and regulatory framework for PFAS does not alleviate the need for environmental investigations to continue and reasonable steps to be taken to mitigate potential harm. As a result, regulatory authorities and land owners need to work closely and cooperatively to stay abreast of new science and guidance and forge a sensible path for the regulation of PFAS.

This post was prepared by Sophie Jacobs with the assistance of Michael Winram and Patrick Ibbotson.

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