By Josie Raftery / LGAQ Lead, Water and Wastewater Infrastructure and Rudi Pretzler / LGAQ Lead, Public Health & Waste
If your grandma told you not to use non-stick cookware because it’s poisonous, she might have been right. Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, more commonly known as PFAS, have been used in common household products and specialty applications, including non-stick cookware (Teflon), fabric, furniture and carpet stain protection (Scotchguard), food packaging, some industrial processes and fire-fighting foams.
PFAS hit the headlines when a Senate paper was tabled in May 2016, involving several Australian Defence Force (ADF) aviation sites in Australia that had been contaminated through the use of firefighting foam over a long period of time. This led to an inquiry into the management of PFAS contamination in and around ADF bases that concluded in 2018.
The bond between fluorine and carbon that characterises these chemicals is one of the strongest chemical bonds in existence, making PFAS useful in products that are designed to resist heat, stains, grease and water. Unfortunately, that also makes it incredibly hard to get rid of after use. It takes a long time for them to be cleaned up and, while some more common PFAS (PFOS, PFOA) have been phased out, there are many more still in production.
As well as being found in packaging and other household products, PFAS find their way into the environment and are known to bio-accumulate through plants and up the food chain to contaminate the food we eat. While PFAS in the small quantities present in our environment and food will not make a person immediately sick, in sufficient concentrations, and over a long period of exposure, PFAS chemicals will remain in the body and have been linked to chronic health issues.
Australia is one of the few places that do not produce their own PFAS-containing materials. This means that the level of contamination here is lower than in other parts the world, where most of the research on PFAS in the environment and health implications has taken place. However, imports (packaging and electronics mainly) make it increasingly prevalent throughout our environment.
What is being done about it?
The National Environmental Management Plan (NEMP) for PFAS is a national guideline that set a benchmark for a consistent approach to contamination. The first draft was released in 2017, with the intent that the guidelines would be updated as further information becomes available. The third iteration of the guidelines (NEMP 3.0) was recently released for consultation, with a significantly increased precautionary principle compared to NEMP 2.0.
What does this mean for local government?
The precautionary approach to PFAS management set out in NEMP 3.0 has implications for how local government water and waste operators can handle and re-use waste materials, especially organics and biosolids.
With the state urging councils to consider a green bin, and biosolids being used routinely for agricultural purposes, these changes could put a significant financial impost on communities by complicating or prohibiting the spread of biosolids or compost on fields. The national guidelines are very likely to inform future legislative changes in Queensland, with NEMP 2.0 already informing end-of-waste codes.
What can be done?
The problem of PFAS contamination is both complex and widespread, and there is concern that the onus is being put on water service providers to come up with solutions without action being proposed to address the problem at the source, with source control being explicitly excluded as a discussion point in the NEMP but identified by leading scientists as the only real option for dealing with PFAS contamination.
The LGAQ and councils need to collaborate with other organisations to get the balance right between public health concerns and practical solutions. We are supporting a consortium through the Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA), which is undertaking its own scientific review to find workable recommendations to keep that balance economically and environmentally suitable.
The LGAQ and many other organisations have succeeded in getting an extension to the consultation, considering the complex issues involved. We will use the coming months to work with councils to ensure Queensland’s journey towards a circular economy is informed but not stopped by contamination. Please get in touch if you need any further information: firstname.lastname@example.org and/or email@example.com.