PFAS discovery raises health concerns

Liz Bell

LAST week’s revelations of elevated readings of PFAS in drinking water and waste water treatment plants in the Seaspray area have raised new concerns about the source of the chemicals in the local environment and their potential health effects.

Gippsland environmental advocate Tracey Anton said she had spent years investigating PFAS contamination in the region, and had anecdotal evidence of widespread health problems for people living in areas where it had been detected.

Ms Anton is calling for more investigation into the source of the Seaspray contamination, and for subsidised blood testing of residents.

“There needs to be blood tests offered for everyone living in the areas, there are a lot of people living where PFAS has previously been identified who have had health issues,” she said.

“It’s not good enough for Gippsland Water to say the water is safe, and just brushing over it with ‘Oh, it’s safe'”.

Last year, WorkSafe Victoria provided $40,000 to the Electrical Trades Union to test up to 100 people who worked at Esso’s Longford gas plants and its Bass Strait gas platforms, after PFAS was detected in bores, dams and drainage lines near the site and a former worker, Rob Lyndon, had elevated levels of PFOS – a type of PFAS – in his blood that were well above health guidelines.

While the ETU has not yet released the results from the later mass testing, Ms Anton said she was aware several of those readings were also above health guidelines. However, she said she did not believe the Seaspray water contamination was linked to the contamination at the Esso site, and had come from a different, unidentified source, possibly related to agriculture.

Environmental group Friends of the Earth echoed concerns PFAS was potentially circulating in the community through recycled water and products used in agriculture.

The group made a submission to the November 2020 review of the EPA’s Recycled Water Guidance, calling for human health-based benchmarks for PFAS in biosolids used on agricultural fields.

Among other things, it also recommends monitoring PFAS in treated sewage sludge prior to any agricultural application and making the data publicly available.

In September 2020, the CSIRO released a paper, Advanced PFAS precursor digestion methods for biosolids, which revealed researchers had demonstrated levels of PFAS in biosolids were “significantly higher” than historically understood, and their land application “could result in sensitive environments being exposed to PFAS at levels higher than previously anticipated”.

FoE researcher Anthony Amis said the group was pushing for adequate testing of recycled water, particularly water used on farms.

“Recycled water is often perceived as being a great environmental outcome, but are consumers of recycled water and biosolids being told the full story in regards to what is actually in that water,” he said.

The FoE submission says water authorities should not be able to provide recycled water or biosolids if the products are known to be contaminated with PFAS or other contaminants, including microplastics.

“There needs to be an urgent upgrade to Australian Guideline for Recycling and Guideline levels for PFAS in recycled water and biosolids,” he said.

Gippsland Water, which manufactures a type of fertiliser using treated biosolids, said it could assure the community the product was “safe for its intended use”.

“All of the biosolids removed from our wastewater treatment plants are treated, blended with other organic products and turned into high quality compost at our organics recycling facility,” a spokesman said.

“The compost we manufacture undergoes rigorous testing and is safe for its intended use, meeting AS4454 Australian standards and reflective of industry best practice.”

The Gippsland Water spokesperson also said none of the biosolids removed from its wastewater treatment plants were applied directly to land.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that have been in use since the 1940s, and are (or have been) found in many consumer products like cookware, food packaging, and stain repellants.

International studies have found links between PFAS chemicals and breast and liver cancers, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency has stated there is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans.