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New Australian guidance for dealing with sites contaminated with firefighting foam chemicals

Date: 24 March 2017
Category: News, Press releases,2017

New national guidance – published this week and made freely available to all by Australia’s leading science-based partnership in the prevention, assessment and remediation of environmental contamination – offers the most up-to-date, evidence-based advice for assessing, managing and remediating the emerging contaminants PFOS and PFOA.

Addendum, 4 April 2017:  The Australian Government released on 3 April 2017 a review by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), Perfluorinated Chemicals in Food, which determined the recommended tolerable daily intake (TDI) values for people potentially exposed to PFAS, including PFOS and PFOA. As a result, the TDIs have been lowered to 20 nanograms per kilogram of body weight per day for PFOS, and 160 nanograms per kilogram of body weight per day for PFOA. The drinking water quality value for PFOS has been reduced from 0.5 to 0.07 micrograms per litre, and from 5 to 0.56 micrograms per litre for PFOA. More information, including the FSANZ report and several fact sheets, is available via the Australian Department of Health websiteCRC CARE will revise its interim guidance accordingly and publish the updated guidance as soon as possible.

As a result of firefighting foam use, perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) have been detected at firefighter-training locations, including airports and other aviation facilities, not only across Australia, but also worldwide.

Some firefighting foams contain PFOS and PFOA

PFOS and PFOA belong to a large group of compounds known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are extremely stable chemical compounds that are potentially harmful to people, animals and the environment. Their stability gives them very useful properties for multiple industrial uses, including in firefighting foams, nonstick cookware, food packaging, insecticides, and waterproof and fire-resistant fabric. But this same property also means that they don’t break down easily and therefore accumulate in the environment. They are now so widespread that almost every person on Earth has been exposed to PFAS.

The guidance, published by the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE), will help practitioners and regulators (including state-based environment protection authorities) make decisions about whether a PFAS-contaminated site requires further investigation.

As well as describing a range of remediation options, the guidance includes:

  • human health screening levels (HSLs) and ecological screening levels (ESLs) for PFOS and PFOA contamination in soil, groundwater, surface water and sediment
  • information on how to apply the screening values
  • a risk-based approach to the management and remediation of PFOS and PFOA contamination.

According to Professor Ravi Naidu, CRC CARE Managing Director and CEO, “This new guidance provides a ‘how to’ guide for risk-based management and remediation decision-making.”

When screening levels are exceeded, further investigations are triggered to determine if site-specific assessments or remediation are required. Importantly, the guidance emphasises that screening levels should not be used as remediation targets, as this could result in unnecessary remediation.

“A risk-based approach ensures that remediation and management plans are determined according to the actual risk to people and the environment,” said Professor Naidu. “This new guidance therefore provides information for performing site-specific assessments, taking risk into account.”

To ensure that the guidance meets Australian regulatory requirements, it is consistent with the National Environment Protection (Assessment of Site Contamination) Measure and the National Water Quality Management Strategy, as well as guidance issued by the Environmental Health Standing Committee (enHealth) and the Department of Energy and Environment. It will also complement the National Remediation Framework currently being developed by CRC CARE.

Furthermore, CRC CARE will update the guidance as required if and when health advice changes – for example, if enHealth adjusts its interim tolerable daily intake (TDI) values. 

The guidance was independently reviewed by Professor Brian Priestly from the Australian Centre for Human Health Risk Assessment at Monash University. The ecological component was reviewed by Dr Graeme Batley, Chief Research Scientist in the Environmental Contaminant Mitigation and Technologies research program, CSIRO Land and Water.

“This work been signed off by two of Australia’s most eminent experts in environmental toxicology and risk assessment, so we can be confident that the science that underpins the guidance is sound, while at the same time recognising that there are uncertainties and limitations associated with emerging contaminants,” said Professor Naidu. “Furthermore, the guidance was developed in collaboration with government, industry and researchers, so it is also pragmatic and implementable.”

The CRC CARE guidance comprises a package of five related but stand-alone documents, which can be donloaded here:

  1. Background
  2. Health screening levels
  3. Ecological screening levels
  4. Application of PFOS and PFOA HSLs and ESLs
  5. Management and Remediation of PFOS and PFOA.

Additional resources also available for download include:

More information is also available at the PFOS and PFOA guidelines section of this website.

Note: the CRC CARE guidance should be regarded as both draft and interim, particularly in relation to health-based screening values. If revised health reference values are endorsed by enHealth or another major Australian health-based agency, the CRC CARE guidance will be updated accordingly.

About CRC CARE

CRC CARE is an Australian and world leader in research, technology development and policy guidance for assessing, cleaning up and preventing contamination of soil, water and air. The centre was launched in 2005 as part of the Australian Government’s Cooperative Research Centres Programme, which supports industry-led collaborations between industry, researchers and the community. 

More information

As well as describing a range of remediation options, the guidance includes:

·         human health screening levels (HSLs) and ecological screening levels (ESLs) for PFOS and PFOA contamination in soil, groundwater, surface water and sediment

·         information on how to apply the screening values

·         a risk-based approach to the management and remediation of PFOS and PFOA contamination.