Fluoride Action Network

Tasmania: PFAS contamination: what is it and why should we be concerned it’s been found in Launceston

Source: The Examiner | July 7th, 2019 | By Caitlin Jarvis
Location: Australia
Industry type: Perfluorinated chemicals
DETECTED: PFAS compounds have been detected in the river at Corra Linn following a site investigation of Launceston Airport. Picture: file

DETECTED: PFAS compounds have been detected in the river at Corra Linn following a site investigation of Launceston Airport. Picture: file

Levels of PFAS have been found at two locations in Launceston as part of a national review of potentially affected areas.

But should we be worried about it? Let us explain it for you.

What are per and poly-fluroalkyl substances (PFAS)?

Per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many other chemicals. Both chemicals are very persistent in the environment and in the human body – meaning they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time.

These substances are a group of manufactured chemicals widely used globally since the 1950s to make many household and industrial products that resist heat, stains, grease and water.

Because they are heat-resistant and film-forming in water, some of these chemicals have also been used as ingredients in firefighting foams.

Why are we hearing about it?

National aviation authority Airservices Australia used PFAS-containing firefighting foam until 2010. Under direction from the federal government, AirServices is conducing a full review of firefighting and training sites around Australia, including Tasmania, that were exposed to potential PFAS contamination. Sites in Tasmania that are being reviewed are the Launceston and Hobart airports.

In June 2018, an international Fairfax Media investigation was published, which detailed a cancer cluster found in the US at a site affected by PFAS exposure. The investigation revealed at least 21 children from a high school battled cancer throughout their school years.

They lived in a town where high levels of PFAS contamination had been found in a water supply.

What are the environmental impacts of PFAS contamination?

Tasmanian Public Health director Mark Veitch said PFAS chemicals have not been proven to cause any specific illnesses in humans but exposure to them is recommended to be minimal.

“PFAS chemicals can travel long distances through soil and water and can get into groundwater,” Dr Veitch said.

“These chemicals don’t break down in the environment and can accumulate in animals, including humans. Because PFAS chemicals have been widely used and don’t break down, traces of PFAS may be in groundwater, surface water and soils in many urban areas.

“The risk posed by PFAS compounds to the population is likely to be very low.”

Dr Veitch said human blood studies provided evidence of decreasing concentrations of PFOS and PFOA (two PFAS compounds) in the Australian population from 2002.

“This likely reflects the decline in use of these chemicals in Australia since around 2002,” he said.

Has PFAS contamination been found in Launceston?

Recent monitoring by Public Health Services (PHS) has detected PFOS (perfluoro-octane sulfonate) in fish (including eels) from the North Esk River downstream of Corra Linn Gorge.

Public Health recently conducted fish testing from the North Esk River to support Airservices Australia’s Launceston Airport investigations.

Brown trout, eels and another fish species were tested for a range of PFAS chemicals from four sites along the North Esk River.

All species caught downstream of Corra Linn Gorge exceeded the “trigger points” for PFOS. This means that further investigation of fish that may be caught for consumption is needed.

Public Health is also taking a precautionary approach and recommends against eating fish where PFAS levels are elevated.

The historical use of fire-fighting foams at Launceston Airport is one potential source of PFAS contamination of fish in this section of the North Esk River.

Airservices Australia has recently completed a preliminary site investigation of PFAS contamination across the entire Launceston Airport site to better understand the potential impacts from the use of these fire-fighting foams.

The investigation detected PFAS in soil, sediment, surface water and groundwater on the airport including at the boundary of the airport.

What happens now?

Airservices Australia will undertake a detailed site investigation of the PFAS compounds found at the Launceston Airport sites tested during the review.

Dr Veitch said this will involved environmental testing beyond the boundary of the airport to determine any potential PFAS migration off-airport.

“Sampling and assessment for the site investigation is likely to start later this year,” he said.

People who have consumed fish and eels from the North Esk River can be reassured this will not affect their health.

Public Health will work with DPIPWE and the Recreational Fisheries Section of to ensure recreational fishers are aware of the latest advice.

“It’s important people follow this precautionary advice and do not consume the fish and eels until we have more information.”