How might PFAS affect us?
Most people in Australia (and in many other countries) are likely to have very low levels of PFAS in their bodies, through exposure to everyday household items like carpet and upholstery protective sprays, cosmetics, sunscreens, and some non-stick cookware. But people living near sites where PFAS have been released into the environment in large amounts (usually due to the use of PFAS-containing fire-fighting foams) may have higher levels in their bodies - particularly if they have been drinking contaminated bore water. These people are understandably concerned about what this might mean for their health.
Many scientific studies have investigated potential health effects resulting from PFAS exposure, but the results have been mixed, and scientific understanding is still developing as more research is undertaken. In late 2017, the Australian Government established an Expert Health Panel to advise the Australian Government on the available evidence, including key international reports and views from the public and other stakeholders.
The Australian Government’s Expert Health Panel for PFAS found that although the scientific evidence in humans is limited, reviews and scientific research to date have provided fairly consistent reports of an association with several health effects. The health effects reported in these associations are generally small and within normal ranges for the whole population. There is also limited to no evidence of human disease or other clinically significant harm resulting from PFAS exposure at this time.
Studies on laboratory animals have shown adverse effects of chronic PFAS exposure on the liver, gastrointestinal tract and thyroid hormones. However, the applicability of these studies to humans is not well established.
The Environmental Health Standing Committee (enHealth) has released guidance statements to help assess any public health risks when PFAS have been released into the environment. The statements also provide guidance on the potential health impacts from exposure to three types of PFAS (PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS); the major human exposure pathways; development of human health reference values for PFOA, PFOA and PFHxS; breast feeding and pregnancy; and blood tests. The enHealth statements were first issued in 2016, and revised in 2019 to reflect the most current evidence relating to PFAS.
As a precaution, enHealth recommends exposure to PFAS be minimised wherever possible whilst further research is undertaken on the potential health effects. Governments across Australia provide site-specific advice to people living near PFAS investigation areas, on ways to reduce their exposure.
The Australian Government has funded dedicated mental health and counselling services for people surrounding the Investigation Areas at RAAF Base Williamtown, NSW, Army Aviation Centre Oakey, Qld, and RAAF Base Tindal, NT. The Department of Health provides information about these services and information about services available in areas outside these regions.
- Expert Health Panel for PFAS - read about the Expert Health Panel for PFAS.
- enHealth Guidance Statements on PFAS - June 2019
- enHealth Guidance Statements on PFAS - Factsheet July 2019
- enHealth Guidance Statements on PFAS Exposure Pathways - June 2019
- Australian National University epidemiological study - a study which is looking at the potential health effects of PFAS exposure in Williamtown NSW, Oakey Qld and Katherine NT.
- Department of Health - information about mental health and counselling services.
- Department of Health - information service for public enquiries relating to health - phone 1800 941 180 or email to health.PFAS@health.gov.au.