Because PFAS have been used in a wide variety of applications over time and they do not fully break down naturally, they are present in low levels almost everywhere in the environment. Increased levels of PFAS can be found near sewage treatment plants, landfills, and places where fire-fighting foams have been used (e.g. mining operations, fuel refineries and storage facilities, airports, fire-training grounds and transport infrastructure). Consequently, these chemicals are found in many places and are not just limited to Commonwealth-owned sites.
The Department of Defence has a comprehensive PFAS Investigation and Management Program underway, which has identified around 27 Defence sites that are now either undergoing investigations or have reached the stage of determining management options. Airservices Australia’s National PFAS Management Program is also conducting assessments of sites where it has provided aviation fire and rescue services.
State and territory governments are conducting their own investigations of state-owned sites. For example, fire fighters may have used fire-fighting foams containing PFAS at training sites. Visit our PFAS Advice page for information about PFAS activities in your jurisdiction.
The Australian Government is working closely with affected communities to help them understand what PFAS contamination means for them and their daily lives.
Advice on reducing exposure to PFAS will vary with each location due to local circumstances so community members should follow the most current advice provided by the investigating agency’s human health risk assessment and state or territory advice for their local area. People wanting to discuss personal health issues should talk to their local GP.
Since 2002, the Australian Government National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) has published a number of alerts on PFAS. NICNAS has recommended that:
- PFOS, PFOA and other related chemicals should continue to be restricted to essential uses where less hazardous alternatives are not available.
- PFOS-based fire-fighting foam should only be used in essential applications (i.e. not be used for training purposes).
- Industry should actively seek alternatives to and phase out PFAS and PFAS-related substances of concern.
- Existing stocks of PFAS fire-fighting foams should be disposed of responsibly on expiry.
- Importers and users of PFAS should be aware of international activities relating to PFAS.
- Importers should ensure that alternative chemicals are less toxic and not persistent in the environment.
- Up-to-date information on safe use of PFAS and handling should be provided on labels and Safety Data Sheets.
A large body of work is underway across Australia - both to manage existing contamination and to increase our ability to prevent further contamination from PFAS and other industrial chemicals of concern.
Most people living in Australia will have detectable levels of PFAS in their blood. Exposure to PFAS can be from a variety of sources such as food packaging, non-stick cookware and stain protection applications for fabrics and carpets.
There are a number of specific sites across Australia, where concentrated releases of PFAS have resulted in increased levels of PFAS in surrounding soil, water and produce. Visit our PFAS Advice page for links to identified investigations areas near you.
For most people in PFAS affected areas, the highest risk of exposure is likely to be through the consumption of contaminated groundwater (i.e. bore water) and food grown using contaminated ground water.
Outside of the identified investigation areas, unless you live near industrial areas, landfill sites, or firefighting training grounds where PFAS-containing foams were used, it is unlikely that increased levels of PFAS would be present in your local environment.
The Department of Health has produced a factsheet on exposure pathways:
The health authority in your state or territory is the authoritative source for precautionary health advice on PFAS. You can find who your local health authority is from our PFAS Advice page. Your local health authority will be able to provide general advice on exposure and health effects, as well as information specific to local sites.
The Australian Government Department of Health can also provide general advice on exposure and health effects.
The precautions put in place are just that – precautions. While we know these chemicals can persist in humans, animals and the environment, there is currently limited understanding of the human health effects of long-term PFAS exposure. Therefore, as a precaution governments in Australia recommend that exposure be reduced wherever possible while research into any potential health effects continues.
If you have your blood tested for PFAS, you should talk to your GP about what the results mean for you.
A blood test can measure the level of PFAS in a person’s blood. If PFAS is detected, this tells a person that they have been exposed to PFAS. However, these tests are not routine and there is at present insufficient scientific evidence for a medical practitioner to be able to tell a person whether their blood level will make them sick now or later in life, or if any current health problems are related to the PFAS levels found in their blood. As such, blood tests have no diagnostic or prognostic value.
At a population level, blood tests can inform a community that they have been exposed to PFAS at a level above that of the general population. Monitoring pooled community blood samples over time may help determine the success of exposure reduction measures in reducing blood levels of PFAS.
Food and water
Australia has an effective, robust food regulation system in place to ensure the safety of our food.
For the general food supply, it is considered extremely unlikely that consumption of a specific food group over a period would all be from food sourced locally from a contaminated site. For example, milk on the supermarket shelf does not normally come from just one dairy farm, but is sourced from many farms, mixed and distributed through retail outlets. While this may mean low levels of PFAS are still present, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) found dietary exposure to PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS from the general food supply is unlikely to exceed the Tolerable Daily Intakes.
Data available to date suggests that dietary exposure to PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS in the general food supply is likely to be low. In 2016, FSANZ performed an analysis of PFAS chemicals in a range of foods representative of the Australian diet, sampled from outlets such as supermarkets, corner stores, delicatessens, markets and takeaway shops, representing the buying habits of most of the community. The analysis found no detections for PFOA and only two detections for PFOS out of 50 foods tested. The concentrations of PFOS were at very low levels and similar to those reported internationally for the same foods.
FSANZ is undertaking further monitoring of PFAS in the general food supply as part of the next routine Australian Total Diet Study. Visit FSANZ's website for more information.
State and territory governments are responsible for food regulation in Australia and are the appropriate authorities to issue food advisories to the public regarding any food contaminant, including PFAS.
Where food safety regulators consider action is required to manage exposure through food, maximum limits for contaminants in the environment are set. To date, no maximum limits have been set for PFAS contaminants in food by Australian regulators nor internationally. Consequently there are no current restrictions on domestic or international trade in agricultural or aquaculture products.
Some people do consume certain foods which are primarily sourced near a contaminated site – for example, farmers who raise and consume their own animals. These people may reach the Tolerable Daily Intake for PFOS and PFHxS when they consume their usual amounts of that food. Because of this, people living near PFAS contaminated sites may be advised by the investigating agency or the state health authority to reduce their consumption of some of their own produce to minimise PFAS exposure. This advice is site-specific, is provided directly to the individuals affected, and does not apply to the general population.
For more information, visit our PFAS in food and water page.
Fish (or other aquatic animals) that live in PFAS-contaminated waters may contain PFAS. In some instances, if you consume too much fish from PFAS-contaminated waters, you may exceed the Tolerable Daily Intakes for PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS.
Where fishing waters are near a PFAS contaminated site, the investigating agency or the state or territory government will provide advice on whether eating the fish is safe. This advice may include precautionary signage erected in affected areas. Visit our PFAS Advice page to find who to contact about the most current advice for your fishing location.
Where recreational waters are near a PFAS contaminated site, the investigating agency or the state or territory government will provide advice on whether swimming is safe. This advice may include precautionary signage erected in affected areas. Visit our PFAS Advice page to find who to contact about the most current advice for your swimming location.
The National Health and Medical Research Council has published recreational water guidelines for PFAS. For more information, see:
For most people living in PFAS affected areas, the highest risk of exposure is likely to be through the consumption of contaminated groundwater (i.e. bore water) and food grown using contaminated groundwater.
Precautionary advice on reducing exposure to PFAS will vary with each location due to local conditions, so you should follow the most current advice provided by the investigating agency or the state or territory government advice for your area. This advice may include precautionary signage erected in affected areas.
Visit our PFAS Advice page to find who to contact about the most current advice in your location.
The National Health and Medical Research Council has published drinking water guidelines for PFAS. For more information, see:
Australian Governments have taken a precautionary approach to managing existing PFAS contamination, working to prevent or reduce environmental and human PFAS exposure wherever possible. Efforts have mainly been directed at dealing with contamination created by historical use of these chemicals by:
- Conducting investigations across Australia to establish a greater understanding of the extent of contamination and likely impacts on surrounding communities, and where necessary, developing management strategies tailored to the unique conditions of the site.
- Where identified, ensuring PFAS exposure pathways are broken wherever possible, primarily by providing alternative water where necessary and providing advice to affected communities on other ways to reduce their exposure.
- Providing community support, information and advice.
- Investing in closing the knowledge gaps on the health effects of PFAS, and developing remediation strategies, through funding research.
- Reviewing environmental legislation with a view to better regulation of PFAS and other emerging contaminants.
- Developing guidance for all site managers to respond to PFAS contamination appropriately.
- Increasing coordination and collaboration between all levels of government and across the Commonwealth.
Responsibility for regulation of industrial chemicals at each stage of their ‘lifecycle’ is shared across the Commonwealth, states and territories. The lifecycle of a chemical includes manufacture, import, export, use, disposal and destruction. All Australian Governments have been working together to develop a system that will better manage chemical use. For further information, visit the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment website.
Governments across Australia also came together to develop the Intergovernmental Agreement on a National Framework for Responding to PFAS Contamination, to improve communication, information-sharing and collaboration to ensure better outcomes for affected communities. The Intergovernmental Agreement was reviewed by the Commonwealth and state and territory governments during 2019. Visit our News page for more information.
Site investigations involve thorough and detailed scientific work. These usually take between two to three years each and site owners are working towards completing them in 12-18 months. The Government is committed to being open and transparent with potentially affected communities about the progress and findings of these investigations.
The results of site investigations are released as quickly as possible and those living in affected communities are the first people we talk to.
To ratify the listing of PFOS and PFOA underthe Stockholm Convention, Australia must first be able to meet the associated management obligations.
To enable this, governments are working together to establish a National Standard for the Environmental Risk Management of Industrial Chemicals. The National Standard will set a nationally consistent environmental management approach for the use and disposal of industrial chemicals, including PFAS. The National Standard will be established by Commonwealth framework legislation, and implemented in regulatory frameworks in each jurisdiction. Work on framework legislation to establish the National Standard is currently underway. The National Standard will also form part of a national legislative framework that would support the Australian Government in deciding whether to ratify the listing of PFOA and PFOA (and any future listings) under the Stockholm Convention.
Once the Australian government can be confident in our ability to meet the obligations required under the Stockholm Convention, the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Treaties will consider whether ratifying the listing of PFOS is in the national interest. This is part of Australia’s treaty-making process.
For more information on the Stockholm Convention, visit our International Cooperation page.
Fire-fighting foams containing PFAS have been used in fire training drills and emergencies by the public and private sectors in Australia and worldwide for more than three decades.
The Australian Government has worked since 2002 to reduce the use of certain PFAS. As far as we know at this point in time, the biggest source of concentrated emissions of PFAS in Australia is from historical use of PFAS-containing fire-fighting foams, particularly at fire-fighting training grounds. Use of these fire-fighting foams has been significantly reduced and discontinued in most cases.
In 2003 Airservices Australia began phasing out PFAS-containing fire-fighting foams at all civilian airports where it operates, and has not used them at civilian-only airports since 2010.
From 2004, the Department of Defence commenced phasing out its use of PFOS and PFOA-containing fire-fighting foams and switched to ‘Ansulite’, which only contains trace elements of PFOS/PFOA and is only used in emergency situations or in controlled environments to test equipment. The Department of Defence is currently undertaking a review of alternative fire-fighting foams that meet capability requirements as well as environmental protection requirements.
Firefighters sometimes add chemical products to the water they use to fight fires. These chemical products are broadly categorised as 'foams', 'gels', or 'retardants'.
Foams are either sprayed onto a fire directly by a firefighter or onto threatened structures in the form of compressed air foam. Gels are sprayed onto structures in the path of a fire by a firefighter and provide a protective layer that stops the structure from catching alight. Retardants are typically dropped from an aircraft either directly onto the fire, or in front of the fire to form a fire-break.
The foams that are used to fight bushfires, or fires involving ordinary combustible material, are usually ‘Class A’ foams. Class A foams do not contain PFAS. The foams that are used to fight liquid fuel fires (for example: petrol, diesel, avgas, lubrication oil) are ‘Class B’ foams. Some Class B foams contain PFAS, but these types of foams are not intended for use on bushfires. Gels and retardants do not contain PFAS chemicals.
The foam, gel and retardant chemical products that are used to fight Australian bushfires have undergone stringent testing by the United States Forest Service. This data has been analysed and accepted by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council, which is the peak body for public sector fire, land management and emergency service organisations in Australia and New Zealand.
The chemicals contained in the foams, gels and retardants used in Australian bushfire fighting should not have long-lasting toxic effects in the environment.
Dark Waters movie - PFAS questions
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (or ‘PFAS’) are a group of over 4,000 manufactured chemicals. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is one member of the PFAS family. PFOA is sometimes referred to as 'C-8' because it contains a chain of eight carbon atoms.
PFOA, along with perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorohexanoic acid (PFHxS) are probably the most well-known members of the PFAS family. All three of these chemicals are considered to be 'long-chain' PFAS because they contain a long chain of carbon atoms that are fully saturated with fluorine. All three chemicals also contain a 'head group' at one end of the chain, which plays a significant role in the molecule’s relative toxicity.
PFOA, PFOS and PFHxS are chemicals of concern because they are highly mobile in water (so travel long distances from their source); do not fully break down naturally in the environment; and are toxic to a range of animals. However, not all PFAS have these properties. For example, PFAS with short carbon chains are generally of lower concern than the long chain PFAS like PFOA, PFOS and PFHxS.
The Australian Government collects and reviews data on chemicals that are manufactured in Australia through the 'National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme' (NICNAS). The information gathered by NICNAS indicates that PFOA is not manufactured in Australia. This is also the case for PFOS and PFHxS. The information from NICNAS also indicates Teflon is not manufactured in Australia.
TeflonTM is a trade name for the chemical 'polytetrafluoroethylene' (PTFE). PTFE is a member of the PFAS family but it has a different structure from PFOA, PFOS or PFHxS, which gives it different properties.
There are several important differences between the properties of Teflon (PTFE) and PFOA/PFOS/PFHxS:
- PTFE is not soluble in water - PFOA, PFOS and PFHxS are soluble in water
- PTFE is too large and too insoluble to be absorbed by organisms - PFOA, PFOS and PFHxS are readily absorbed by organisms that eat/drink contaminated food/water
- PTFE is not toxic to animals - PFOA, PFOS and PFHxS have a range of toxic effects in animals
These differences mean that regulators do not consider PTFE (Teflon) to be a chemical of concern to human health or the environment.
The link between PFOA and Teflon is that PFOA is used to help make Teflon. However, it is important to emphasise that PFOA is not an ingredient in Teflon—it is simply added to the reaction vessel to help make Teflon, and is removed at the end of the process. Therefore, Teflon should not contain PFOA. There are strict standards in place to help ensure that Teflon does not contain PFOA.
Dark Waters showed a chemical manufacturer dumping large quantities of contaminated waste into the environment. This waste came from a plant that manufactured Teflon using PFOA. Large quantities of contaminated waste (at least 7000 tonnes) were buried and the PFOA leached out of the waste containers into the environment. This led to very high concentrations of PFOA in the ground water, creeks and rivers in the surrounding area.
There are no manufacturing plants for PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS or Teflon (PTFE) in Australia so the same thing should not happen here.
There is a scene in Dark Waters where Rob Billet drives into a town in West Virginia and notices two girls riding their bikes along the street. The girls turn and smile to Rob—revealing black coloured teeth. The movie implies that PFOA in the local drinking water supply has caused this discolouration. The movie suggests that PFOA contains fluoride, and that 'while a little fluoride is good for your teeth, too much fluoride is bad and causes the blackening'. However, PFOA does not contain fluoride. PFOA contains fluorine but not fluoride and this difference is important. An extensive search of scientific literature reveals no evidence that drinking PFOA-contaminated water will cause a human’s teeth to become discoloured.