National guidance for managing PFAS contamination released

31 Mar 2017

The Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment has released a risk-based guideline for assessing, managing and remediating per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances contamination.

There has been increased recognition in Australia about the potential risk that per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), historically used in firefighting foam and other industrial chemical applications, pose to humans and their surrounding environment. Exposure to these chemicals has potential adverse health effects, many of which are yet to be properly understood.

In a welcome development, the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE) has released a risk-based guideline for assessing, managing and remediating PFAS contamination. The Guideline is aimed at assisting in the development of an approach towards uniformly dealing with PFAS contaminated sites across Australia. However, the Guideline is not a panacea for dealing with the significant complexities and unknowns inherent to PFAS contamination.

What you need to do

Anyone working in the contamination management industry, and owners and occupiers of land potentially contaminated with PFAS, should familiarise themselves with the Guidelines and the measures suggested for assessing, managing and remediating PFAS contamination.

It is important to bear in mind that best practice recommendations, and the relevant regulatory framework, will continue to evolve as the level of understanding of the implications of PFAS exposure and toxicity improves at a national and global level.

What is PFAS?

PFAS are man-made chemicals that have been used globally to produce a range of consumer products. Apart from firefighting foam, PFAS has been used in the manufacture of stain-resistant coatings, waterproofing, food packaging, non-stick cookware and insecticides. They are also used in a wide arange of industrial processes such as mist suppressants in the metal plating industry, and may be found in some household products.

PFAS are emerging contaminants and their sources, toxicity, fate and transport are not well understood. Because of the persistence and difficulty of treating PFAS contamination, there is considerable uncertainty about the most appropriate management and remediation approaches.

Purpose of the Guideline

The uncertainty surrounding PFAS contamination, combined with the growing focus on it as the result of a number of high-profile PFAS contamination incidents, has highlighted the lack of clear Australian guidance for dealing with PFAS contamination.

The Guideline is intended to address this by providing a consistent, risk-based approach to the assessment, management and remediation of PFAS contamination in Australia based on the best information currently available.

Key issues addressed in the Guideline include:

  • human health and ecological screening levels for PFAS contamination in soil, groundwater, surface water, fish consumption and sediment; 
  • a framework for discussion regarding the application of such screening levels; and
  • a risk-based approach to the management and remediation of PFAS contamination.

Guideline as an interim guidance

It is envisaged that the Guideline will be used by practitioners, industry, regulators and the owners or occupiers of land contaminated with PFAS. It adopts some recognised guidance values such as the enHealth interim national guidance on human health reference values for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances for use in site investigations in Australia.

Importantly, the Guideline is intended to complement the National Remediation Framework currently being developed by CRC Care that will provide a national approach to managing contaminated sites generally.

Due to the evolving nature of the science relating to PFAS, the Guideline provides interim guidance only, a review of the Guideline will likely follow any change in recommendation by authorities such as the Environmental Health Standing Committee of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (enHealth) or Food Standards Australia New Zealand. We also expect the Guideline to continue evolving as the level of understanding at the national and international level increases as more work is undertaken in relation to PFAS.

It is expected that the regulatory framework surrounding PFAS will continue to evolve as further research is conducted and the level of understanding around acceptable concentrations and remediation methods increases.

Some other events and developments

Coinciding with the release of the Guidelines is a summit of international experts to be hosted by the Victorian EPA, on behalf of the Heads of the EPAs Australia and New Zealand (HEPA), and the Commonwealth Department of Environment and Energy. Keynote speakers will include representatives from the German Environment Agency and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

The summit will be held in Melbourne on 4-5 April 2017, and is intended to provide regulators with an opportunity to further explore the regulation of PFAS, with ultimate aim of informing the development of a PFAS national management plan.

In addition, more work is occurring at State level in relation to PFAS management, including an investigation program being undertaken by the NSW Environment Protection Authority assessing the legacy of PFAS across New South Wales.

All of this activity, combined with the draft and interim nature of the Guidelines, emphasises the significant amount of work that still needs to be done before regulatory certainty can be provided in relation to the assessment, management and remediation of PFAS. This will be an area of significant regulatory focus over coming years, both in Australia and internationally. In the meantime, regulators and industry will need to draw heavily from resources such as the Guidelines.

Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this communication. Persons listed may not be admitted in all States and Territories.