Land and groundwater

PFAS in Victoria


What are PFAS?

Per-and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) are a large group of manufactured chemicals which have historically been used in firefighting foams and other industrial and consumer products for many decades. There are over 4000 individual PFAS substances. The two most well-known PFAS are PFOS (perfluorooctane sulphonate) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid). There is increasing information being generated on PFHxS (perfluorohexane sulphonate).

There is worldwide concern about PFAS due to their wide use, environmental persistence, and chemical properties that allow them to move easily through the environment and build-up (bioaccumulate) through food chains. Certain PFAS are being phased out around the world because they do not naturally break down in the environment and may potentially pose a risk to human health and the environment.

Interim position statement on PFAS

EPA takes a precautionary approach to PFAS as they are persistent, accumulative and mobile. EPA’s interim position on PFAS reflects the most up-to-date information from the 2019 Australian Government’s Environmental Health Standing Committee (enHealth) Guidance Statement and is supported by additional assessments by EPA of emerging chemicals in the environment and biota. A copy of EPA’s Interim position statement on PFAS (publication 1669) is on our website.

Victoria’s environment protection laws will change in July 2020, with the implementation of a general environmental duty (GED) requiring anyone conducting an activity that poses risks to human health and the environment to minimise those risks, so far as reasonably practicable. The interim position statement informs how EPA expects people to act to comply with current and future legislation. Further information regarding these changes can be found here on our website.

EPA continues to assess emerging chemicals in the environment and biota, including PFAS, to make informed decisions about exposure and risk and provide updated advice for the protection of all Victorians from pollution and waste.

PFAS in Victoria - further information + Expand all Collapse all

  • EPA’s role in managing PFAS

    EPA uses its statutory powers under the Environment Protection Act 1970 to hold polluters and landholders to account, issuing remedial notices requiring sites to be investigated and cleaned up. It is EPA’s role to investigate potential environmental contamination from substances, including PFAS.

    When EPA does not have regulatory authority, it will take all regulatory actions available within its powers to manage those impacts effectively and work collaboratively with other relevant jurisdictions and agencies to address the source(s) of PFAS and any offsite pollution impacts. 

  • PFAS National Environmental Management Plan (NEMP)

    Australia’s Environment Ministers have endorsed the country’s first PFAS National Environmental Management Plan (NEMP). An adaptive plan, the PFAS NEMP provides Australia’s state and territory governments with a consistent, practical, risk-based framework for the environmental regulation of PFAS-contaminated materials and sites.

    An updated version of the NEMP (NEMP 2.0) is under consideration by all Australian jurisdictions.

    EPA supports and has adopted the PFAS NEMP.

  • PFAS in the environment

    PFAS move easily through the environment through surface water run-off and leaching to groundwater. Low concentrations of PFAS can be found in Australia in soil, sediment, surface water, groundwater, biota and waste. The movement PFAS in the environment is shown in Figures 1 and 2.

    Environmental contamination is of growing concern as PFAS have been shown to have adverse impacts on fish and some animals. PFAS accumulate in the bodies of animals, with laboratory studies indicating potential for negative effects on their reproductive, developmental and other systems. In studies where large doses of PFAS were given to laboratory animals, possible links with effects on the immune system, liver, reproduction, development and benign (non-cancerous) tumours have been reported. Concentrations increase significantly in the tissues of animals higher up in food chains.

    Further information regarding PFAS specifically in an agricultural setting can be found on our Frequently asked questions about PFAS page.

    PFAS industrial site

    Figure 1. PFAS movement from industrial sites and pathways for human and environmental exposure.

     

    PFAS domestic site

    Figure 2. PFAS movement in the domestic environment and pathways for human
    and environmental exposure in the domestic environment.

    PFAS have been found in water, sediment, soil, biota and waste in Victoria.  EPA continues to assess ambient  environmental (soil, water and sediment) and biota (fish, waterfowl and livestock) PFAS levels across the state to better understand the distribution and concentration of PFAS in the environment. EPA is also working with industry to better understand PFAS in leachate from landfills.

    Ambient
    EPA has an Ambient Emerging Contaminants project, which collects and analyses the occurrence, concentration, and spatial distribution of emerging chemical contaminants in Victoria’s aquatic ecosystems and determines the risk posed to these environments. Through this project EPA has built on a pilot program from 2017 and conducted a broader assessment program in 2018 focused around five major urban centres – Melbourne, Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo and the Latrobe Valley. Testing was carried out on water, sediment and soils associated with different land uses – background, agriculture (low and high intensity), residential and industrial.

    Information is being made available regarding this study. Current publications include:

    Biota
    EPA has a Biota Emerging Contaminants project, which collects and analyses the occurrence, concentration, and spatial distribution of emerging chemical contaminants in Victorian biota including waterfowl and fish.

    Waterfowl
    In 2018, EPA undertook a screening assessment of waterfowl from three locations in Victoria to better understand the extent and distribution of PFAS contamination in waterfowl ahead of the 2018 hunting season. The screening assessment demonstrated that PFAS were detectable in waterfowl in all locations to varying degrees. These concentrations indicated the need for further investigation based on the guidelines from Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) for mammals in the absence of guidelines for waterfowl.

    In May and June 2018, EPA conducted a more extensive study into PFAS concentrations in waterfowl from 19 wetlands around the state. This study aimed to identify potential risks associated with the consumption of waterfowl from popular recreational duck hunting sites. Waterfowl tissue samples were found to contain variable PFAS concentrations. Based on the results of this study, EPA recommends restricting the consumption of recreationally hunted waterfowl for the following wetlands:

    • Macleod Morass (Bairnsdale): children should limit their consumption of waterfowl breast meat to one serve per month and adults and children should not eat liver.
    • Hospital Swamp (Bellarine Peninsula): children should limit their consumption of waterfowl breast meat to one serve per month and adults and children should not eat liver.
    • Heart Morass and Dowd Morass wetlands (East Sale): waterfowl should not be eaten, consistent with previous advice (EPA publication 1672.2, 2018).  

    Fish
    Unlike waterfowl, there has been no statewide program to assess PFAS in fish. Instead, EPA has assessed fish in waterways where high levels of PFAS contamination has occurred or is likely to have occurred. As a result of these investigations, which used the guidelines for fish consumption in FSANZ and subsequent risk assessments, EPA has issued several health advisories.

    • Lake Kernot, Morwell: Do not eat fish or eels caught from the lake.
    • Heart Morass Wetland: Do not eat fish or eels caught from the wetland.
    • Lower Latrobe River: do not eat more than one serve of eel per month from the Lower Latrobe River bounded by Heart Morass, and do not eat more than one serve of carp per week caught from the Lower Latrobe River bounded by Heart Morass.
    • Hazelwood Pondage: Do not eat more than one serve of fish per week for adults and one serve per fortnight for children
    • Maribyrnong River catchment: Do not eat fish caught from Maribyrnong River upstream of Solomons Ford in Avondale Heights (including Deep Creek up to Bulla).
      • Arundel Creek: Avoid fishing, swimming or using water from Arundel Creek for stock watering. Pets should also be kept out of Arundal Creek.

    Livestock
    In agricultural settings, livestock may be exposed to PFAS in water, soil and feed, resulting in accumulation in edible tissue or milk. PFAS persists for a significantly longer duration in the environment (>80 years) than in humans and livestock (Lupton et al 2014).

    Generally, livestock will eliminate PFAS over time if the contaminated source (e.g. stock water) is removed. The time this takes will depend on how much PFAS the animal has been exposed to, but early studies from sheep and non-dairy cattle suggest this is likely to be in the order of months to reduce PFAS tissue concentrations to a level that will minimise the exposure to humans consuming the animal products.

    EPA is undertaking work with DHHS and Agriculture Victoria on a project to assess PFAS in livestock. The project aims to better understand the distribution and elimination of PFAS in these animals, as well as the adequacy of risk assessment models used with respect to agriculture.

    It is noted that there are currently no restrictions on domestic or international trade in agricultural products in relation to PFAS. You can find further information regarding livestock-related issues on Agriculture Victoria’s website.

    If you have further questions on livestock related issues, contact an Agriculture Victoria Veterinary or Animal Health Officer by visiting your local Agriculture Victoria office or telephoning 136 186. You can also find information on Agriculture Victoria’s website.

    Leachate
    In 2017 and 2018, EPA sampled leachate from 22 landfills across Victoria. The samples were analysed for a suite of 15 PFAS.  PFAS were found in all leachate samples representing all waste types and geographic distribution of waste sources across Victoria.   EPA’s leachate sampling results strongly indicate that the contribution of PFAS from landfill leachate to the total PFAS mass discharged into Victorian waste water treatment plans (‘WWTPs’) is minor.

    EPA’s position is that leachate discharges to sewer (including trade waste) should not be generally restricted based on PFAS content. Landfill sites and the water treatment industry should be vigilant and work collaboratively to identify where specific sites warrant further consideration, such as when a sites leachate has unusually elevated concentrations of PFAS and discharges a high volume of this leachate to sewer. Table 1 below gives the mean, median and range of the dominant PFAS found in landfill leachate by EPA Victoria. 

    Table 1 – mean, median and range of concentrations of dominant PFAS (91% of total PFAS mass identified) in landfill leachate in Victoria (n=22).

    Compound Mean concentration (µg/L) Standard deviation (µg/L) Range (µg/L)

    Perfluorobutanesulfonic Acid (PFBS)

    2.11

    5.65

    0.04 – 1.23*

    Perfluorohexanoic Acid (PFHxA) 1.71   1.97 0.11 – 7.74
    Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) 0.79   0.76 0.09 – 3.12 
    Perfluorohexanesulfonic Acid (PFHxS) 0.55   0.55 0.03 – 2.41 
    Perfluoropentanoic Acid (PFPeA) 0.45   0.52 ND – 2.07 
    Perfluoroheptanoic Acid (PFHpA) 0.41   0.43 0.04 – 1.7 
     

    Perfluorooctanesulfonic Acid (PFOS)

    0.32

     
     0.29 0.02 – 1.2 

    *PFBS outlier of 23 µg/L removed

    The results of EPA’s sampling were compared to a review of available literature on PFAS in landfill leachate (publication to be made available shortly). This confirmed that Victoria’s trends of PFAS in leachate reflect those observed nationally and internationally. The mean annual PFAS mass entering the two major Victorian waste water treatment plants (WWTP) from all sources ranges from 49.65 kg/yr to 65.15 kg/yr (calculated from the PFAS mass range in influent (reported by Coggan et al 2017 and WWTP influent volumes provided by Melbourne Water, 2019).

    EPA identified that 10 landfills of the 22 sampled in 2017 and 2018 discharged leachate to sewer, with a mean discharge volume of 20.6 ML/yr and a median discharge volume of 9 ML/yr.  Using these discharge volumes and the mean mass of all PFAS found in leachate, EPA estimated the PFAS mass discharged to sewer annually from landfill leachate in Victoria was 1.05 kg/yr using the mean leachate discharge volume and 0.45 kg/yr using the median leachate discharge volume. The median and mean were used because the leachate volumes discharged to sewer vary significantly between the 10 sites, ranging from 2.5 ML to 84.5 ML per year and three of the 10 landfills discharge significantly more leachate that the other 7.  These three sites skew the calculation of the mean and increase the estimated PFAS mass to sewer.

    Using the mean leachate discharge volume approximately 1.6% to 2.1% of the mean annual PFAS mass in the influent of the two major WWTPs in 2018 is sourced from landfill leachate.  Using the median leachate discharge volume approximately 0.7% to 0.9% of the mean annual PFAS mass in the influent of the two major WWTPs in 2018 is sourced from landfill leachate.

    Table 2: estimated PFAS mass from landfill leachate compared to mean annual PFAS mass in the influent of the two major WWTPs in 2018

    PFAS mass discharged to sewer in landfill leachate (kg/yr) Total PFAS mass in Greater Melbourne WWTP influent (kg/yr) Amount of total PFAS in WWTP influent from leachate (%)

    1.05 (mean leachate discharge volume)

    49.55 – 65.15

    1.6 – 2.1

    0.45 (median leachate discharge volume) 49.55 – 65.15 0.7 – 0.9 

    EPA’s data is currently limited, necessitating a conservative (over) estimation of the contribution of PFAS in leachate discharged to sewer. The actual PFAS mass discharged to sewer by Victorian landfills is likely to be less if it were calculated based on actual leachate volumes discharged and actual leachate PFAS concentrations site by site. Therefore, EPA’s calculation of 459g/yr to 1.05kg/yr is a conservative estimate of the PFAS mass discharged to sewer.

  • PFAS and health

    All of us are exposed to small amounts of PFAS in everyday life. This is through exposure to dust, indoor and outdoor air, food, water, and contact with consumer products that contain PFAS, such as outdoor gear (e.g. waterproof clothing), new carpets and cookware. This explains why there are background levels of these chemicals found in people who have no occupational exposure to PFAS.

    eHealth’s guidance regarding PFAS outlines there is no consistent evidence that PFAS are harmful to human health, or cause any specific illnesses, even in the case of highly exposed occupational populations. EnHealth advises, “although there is uncertainty around the potential for PFAS exposure to cause significant adverse human health effects… it is prudent to reduce exposure to PFAs as far as reasonably practicable.” 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 health effects and others finding none.

    Experimental laboratory studies indicate possible effects on the immune system, liver, reproduction and development of animals. However, because PFAS behaves differently in the bodies of animals compared with humans, the results of animal studies may not reflect the potential for health impacts in humans. Because these chemicals remain in humans and the environment for many years, it is recommended that as a precaution human exposure to PFAS be minimised wherever possible.

    For further information on the potential health effects and exposure pathways of PFAS, see the Australian Government Department of Health’s (PFAS) website.

    In 2017, the Australian Department of Health requested that the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) review interim health-based guidance values for PFAS, previously prepared by enHealth Council. Health based guidance values indicate the amount of a chemical in food or drinking water that a person can consume on a regular basis over a lifetime without any significant risk to health.

    FSANZ derived guideline values in the form of tolerable daily intakes (TDIs) of:

    • 20 ng/kg bw/day for PFOS 
    • 160 ng/kg bw/day for PFOA.

    The values were based on information found in research studies performed in laboratory animals. The full report can be found here.

    The Department of Health has calculated new drinking and recreational water quality values for site investigations based on the final tolerable daily intake levels for Australia.

    • The drinking water quality value is 0.07 µg /L for PFOS and PFHxS and 0.56 µg /L for PFOA.
    • The recreational water quality value is 2 µg /L for PFOS and PFHxS and 10 µg /L for PFOA.

    Environmental criteria for soil were also based on the TDI and are presented within the National Environmental Management Plan for PFAS (NEMP, 2017).

  • PFAS site investigations

    EPA is aware of a number of sites across Victoria that have been impacted by PFAS. Further detail on some of these sites can be found on our PFAS site investigations page.

  • PFAS manufacturing in Victoria

    While PFOS, PFOA and other PFAS were not manufactured in Australia, some are still in use. PFOS and its related compounds are currently imported into Australia, mainly for industrial and chemical manufacturing uses such as mist suppressants and coatings. PFOS, PFOA and other PFAS are present in some types of firefighting foams to improve the foam’s ability to smother fires. PFOS and PFOA may be present in a range of imported consumer products, although many countries have phased out, or are progressively phasing out, the use of PFOS and PFOA. The phase-out has resulted in these two chemicals being substituted by other PFAS.

    Australia ratified the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants on 20 May 2004 and becoming a Party on 18 August 2004. The Convention is a global treaty that aims to protect human health and the environment from the effects of persistent organic pollutants. PFOS, its salts and PFOS-related chemicals are listed in the Stockholm Convention. The Commonwealth Government is considering whether to ratify this listing, and whether Australia will accept international standards for the management of these chemicals. Further information can be found on the Commonwealth Government’s website.

    The Australian Government’s National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) continues to review the use of PFAS in Australia and provide updates to its alerts regarding these chemicals

    The Australian Industrial Chemicals Introduction Scheme (AICIS) will replace NICNAS on 1 July 2020. EPA will update this website accordingly. Further information is available online.

  • Frequently asked questions about PFAS – business and community

    PFAS raises many questions for Victorian businesses and community members. Our Frequently asked questions about PFAS page aims to answer common questions about PFAS-impacted materials, including contaminated water, soils, sediments and other solid materials (solid or liquid PFAS-impacted wastes).

Page last updated on 11 Oct 2019