PFAS Investigations in Western Australia

The PFAS (per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances) National Environmental Management Plan (PFAS NEMP) establishes a practical basis for nationally consistent environmental guidance and standards for managing PFAS contamination.

The plan has been developed by all jurisdictions and recognises the need for implementation of best practice regulation through individual jurisdictional mechanisms. It represents a how-to guide for the investigation and management of PFAS contamination and waste management.

The current version of the PFAS NEMP (PFAS NEMP 2.0) – endorsed for implementation in Western Australia – was published in May 2020 and can be found on the website of the Commonwealth Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water. A draft updated version of the PFAS NEMP (PFAS NEMP 3.0) was released for consultation in September 2022. The PFAS NEMP 3.0 consultation page can be found at National Environmental Management Plan on PFAS – Have Your Say.

In December 2017, the Western Australian State Government released a statement outlining work underway to identify and manage per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in Western Australia.

Background

Firefighting foam containing perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) – such as perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS) – was used to fight fires and for firefighting training from the 1970s to the mid-2000s.

These manufactured chemicals were added to firefighting foams to improve their ability to smother fires. The foams have been used at various sites in Western Australia including civil airports, military air bases, fire training facilities, large fuel storage terminals and refineries and ports.

Scientific knowledge regarding PFAS’ environmental occurrence, effects of exposure, test methods and remediation technologies is rapidly evolving worldwide.

Investigations at Australian Department of Defence sites (on Commonwealth Government land), including RAAF Base Pearce and HMAS Stirling at Garden Island, have found elevated concentrations of PFAS in the environment – associated with the historic use of firefighting foams.

As well as their use in firefighting foam, PFAS are used widely in heat, stain and water-resistant products — including non-stick cookware, specialised garments, and textiles and Scotchgard TM.

PFAS are highly persistent in the environment, moderately soluble, can be transported long distances (in some cases many kilometres) and transfer between soil, sediment, surface water and groundwater.

PFAS have been shown to be toxic to some animals, and because they break down very slowly, they can bioaccumulate and biomagnify in some wildlife, including fish. This means that fish and animals higher in the food chain may accumulate higher concentrations of PFAS in their bodies.

In 2016, the Commonwealth Department of Health commissioned Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) to develop health-based guidance values for PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS. FSANZ’s report, Perfluorinated Chemicals in Food, was published by the Commonwealth Department of Health on 3 April 2017. It includes the final health-based guidance values for site investigations in Australia, and dietary exposure assessment and risk management advice for authorities investigating PFAS contamination.

The 2017 health based guidance values for PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS are expressed as a tolerable daily intake (TDI) and can be used for assessing potential exposure to PFAS through food and drinking water during site investigations for PFAS contamination in Australia.

In 2019 the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) published health-based guidance for PFAS in recreational water bodies (any public coastal, estuarine or freshwater areas where a significant number of people use the water for recreation, such as lakes, rivers and coastal waters), based on how people may be exposed to PFAS in recreational water.

Further information can be found on the Commonwealth Department of Health’s website, and on the NHMRC website.

PFAS-contaminated sites in Western Australia

Airports

Leased federal airports located on Commonwealth land are regulated by the Commonwealth Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts. There are two leased federal airports in Western Australia: Perth Airport and Jandakot Airport.

PFAS investigations at Perth Airport are being conducted by Perth Airport Pty Ltd and Airservices Australia

PFAS investigation are being undertaken on and adjacent to Jandakot Airport by the lessee, Jandakot Airport Holdings Pty Ltd.

Defence sites

The Commonwealth Department of Defence has PFAS investigation and management programs in place at a number of sites in Western Australia:

Defence has completed PFAS Management Area Plans for these sites, based on the findings of each site’s detailed environmental investigations. Relevant WA Government agencies were informed of the progress of these investigations by Defence, and representatives attended Defence community information sessions.

Sites regulated under the Contaminated Sites Act 2003

Sites in Western Australia contaminated with PFAS (other than on Commonwealth land) must be reported to the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER) in accordance with the Contaminated Sites Act 2003 (CS Act).

A number of sites associated with the use and/or storage of aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) are being regulated by DWER under the CS Act. In addition to locations where AFFF have been used, PFAS are often detected near landfills, wastewater treatment plants and other waste disposal or recovery facilities.

The pie chart below shows a breakdown of the different types of sites in WA at which PFAS investigations, remediation and management are being undertaken.

PFAS investigation pie chart

Summary information (termed a ‘Basic Summary of Records’ or BSR) on all confirmed contaminated sites (that is, sites classified as contaminated – remediation required, contaminated – restricted use or remediated for restricted use under the CS Act) is publicly available on DWER’s Contaminated Sites Database.

What is happening now?

Commonwealth Government sites in WA

Commonwealth agencies, such as the Department of Defence and Airservices Australia, and the lessees of leased federal airports (Perth Airport and Jandakot Airport) are carrying out their own investigations of PFAS contamination.

Although DWER cannot regulate activities conducted on Commonwealth land, the department is liaising with the Department of Defence and the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communication and the Arts regarding investigation and management of any contamination which may have the potential to migrate from Commonwealth land to land or waters in State jurisdiction.

The State Government continues to work with Commonwealth agencies to investigate and manage PFAS contamination in accordance with the Intergovernmental Agreement on a National Framework for Responding to PFAS Contamination.

Jandakot Airport

Based on groundwater testing across the airport earlier in 2022, Jandakot Airport arranged for additional monitoring bores to be installed on public land north-west of the airport boundary. Recent testing of groundwater samples from some of these bores, adjacent to residential land, detected PFAS at concentrations exceeding Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.

Some Jandakot residents close to the airport are not connected to scheme water (from the Water Corporation). Because of the test results from the off-site monitoring bores, Jandakot Airport has advised residents in northern Jandakot (north of Bandicoot Reserve), without a scheme water connection, to pause using water from their bores until further investigations have been carried out. Jandakot Airport is arranging testing of residents’ bore water and will continue to investigate the extent of groundwater impacts.

Jandakot Airport has also written to other residents near the airport boundary, informing them of the investigations underway, and asking them to complete a water use survey. Jandakot Airport provides further information on its website https://www.jandakotupdates.com.au/ and can be contacted by telephone on 1800 854 855.

Scheme water provided by the Water Corporation is not affected. The Water Corporation regularly tests its water sources (including production bores on the Jandakot mound) as well as the water supplied to customers for the presence of a range of substances, including PFAS, and has management systems in place to ensure it consistently complies with Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.

As a leased federal airport located on Commonwealth land, Jandakot Airport is regulated under the Airports Act 1996 (Commonwealth), by the Commonwealth Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts.

DWER is liaising closely with Jandakot Airport, the Water Corporation and other State and Commonwealth agencies on this matter.

PFAS National Environmental Management Plan

PFAS National Environmental Management Plan The PFAS NEMP establishes a practical basis for nationally consistent environmental guidance and standards for managing PFAS contamination. The plan has been developed by all jurisdictions and recognises the need for implementation of best practice regulation through individual jurisdictional mechanisms. It represents a how-to guide for the investigation and management of PFAS contamination and waste management.

Version 2.0 of the PFAS NEMP was published in May 2020 and has been endorsed by the Minister for Environment for implementation in Western Australia. The Heads of EPAs of Australia and New Zealand (HEPA) released the draft version 3.0 of the PFAS NEMP for public consultation on 23 September 2022.

PFAS NEMP 3.0 builds on guidance provided in PFAS NEMP 2.0 with the inclusion of additional guidance and standards in priority areas that were identified through the consultation process for PFAS NEMP 2.0 and through ongoing feedback from stakeholders.

The PFAS NEMP 3.0 consultation page can be found at National Environmental Management Plan on PFAS | Have Your Say - Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

Investigations of ambient PFAS levels

PFAS are known to be present at low, but detectable concentrations in many environmental media, because PFAS are highly mobile and have been used extensively in a wide range of products. Concentrations of a substance that are reasonably consistent over a wide area, and that cannot be attributed to an obvious point source, are known as ‘ambient’ or ‘background’ concentrations. Ambient levels of a substance result from the combined contributions of human activity on a regional scale rather than from the individual contribution of a single polluter.

Perth Metropolitan Area Ambient Investigations

In 2019 DWER carried out an investigation of ambient PFAS in lakes and groundwater across the Perth metropolitan area. The sampling program was designed to target locations that were unlikely to be impacted by any major point sources – that is, sampling sites were chosen so as to avoid direct contamination from landfills, airports, fuel depots or other major sources.

The department has published a report on the investigation: Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the Perth metropolitan area: Ambient concentrations in surface water and groundwater.

In summary, the Perth metropolitan ambient investigation found that:

  • PFAS were detected at all surface water sampling locations, and 91% of groundwater sampling locations. The most commonly detected PFAS were PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS.
  • Based on a comparison of PFAS concentrations across different land use types, PFAS impacts appear to be related to the level of ‘urbanisation’ of the surrounding land. The highest PFAS concentrations were observed in older residential and industrial areas of Perth, with generally lower levels encountered in newer suburbs on the urban fringe. Very low concentrations (typically just above the limits of reporting) were observed in semi-rural areas and areas of remnant urban bushland.
  • The investigation found that there is no unacceptable risk to human health from ambient PFAS in surface water or groundwater in the Perth metropolitan area.
  • The levels of ambient PFAS in Perth, and the trends of PFAS concentrations in relation to urban land uses are consistent with the findings of similar investigations in other parts of Australia.

Cockburn Sound

Due to preliminary findings of the Department of Defence’s investigations on Garden Island (Commonwealth land), the Cockburn Sound Management Council (CSMC) carried out sampling to measure PFAS in the marine waters of Cockburn Sound in January 2017. Concentrations of PFAS, including PFOS and PFOA, were at or below the limits of reporting (between 0.005 micrograms per litre [µg/L] and 0.05µg/L) at all 20 sites sampled in Cockburn and Warnbro Sounds. Based on the results of this sampling, there is no evidence that PFAS contamination identified at HMAS Stirling has impacted water quality in Cockburn Sound. For more information on the sampling program see CSMC's fact sheet.

Swan Canning Estuary

The Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions has carried out an investigation of PFAS in the waters and biota of the Swan Canning Estuary and its catchment, and prepared a report on its findings.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are PFAS?

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)* are manufactured compounds within a family of fluorine-containing chemicals that are widely used in heat, stain and water-resistant products. *Until recently, this group of chemicals was known as ‘perfluorinated chemicals’, or ‘PFCs’. The name change has come about to avoid confusion with another group of chemicals that are relevant to climate change, which are also known as ‘PFCs’.

PFAS have been used in a range of industrial and consumer products since the 1950s. Most people have come into contact with low levels of PFAS through eating food from grease-resistant food packaging and using consumer products like non-stick pots and pans, water-repellent clothing, carpet and carpet treatments, cosmetics, polish and paint.

Until recently, PFOS and PFOA were added to aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) to improve the foam’s ability to smother fires.

Do PFAS have adverse health effects?

Most Australians are exposed to small amounts of PFAS every day through exposure to dust, indoor and outdoor air, food, water and contact with consumer products that contain these chemicals. The Food Regulation Standing Committee has advised that the general population’s exposure to PFOS and PFOA is declining, likely reflecting the decline in use of these chemicals since around 2002.

Australian health authorities advise that, although evidence in humans is limited, reviews and scientific research to date have provided fairly consistent reports of an association with various health effects, including:

  • increased levels of cholesterol in the blood
  • increased levels of uric acid in the blood
  • reduced kidney function
  • alterations in some indicators of immune function
  • altered levels of thyroid hormones and sex hormones
  • later age for starting menstruation (periods) in girls, and earlier menopause
  • lower birth weight in babies.

The changes reported in these associations are generally small and within normal ranges for the whole population.

Importantly, there is mostly limited or no evidence of a link to human disease or other clinically significant harm resulting from PFAS exposure.

Some people who live or work in areas that have been contaminated with PFAS, might have been exposed to higher levels of PFAS through food or drinking water. They are advised to minimise their exposure until there is more known about possible impacts on health. The WA Department of Health (WA DoH) advises that health impacts are not expected from exposure to PFAS levels generally being detected in Western Australia.

Scheme water supplied by WA public water service providers, such as the Water Corporation, is regularly tested by independent laboratories for contaminants potentially present in the relevant public drinking water source area, and meets Australian Drinking Water Guidelines, as agreed with WA DoH.

For more information on the health effects of PFAS, see the WA Department of Health website.

How does DWER decide on PFAS health limits for soil and water?

On 3 April 2017, the Australian Government Department of Health published health-based guidance values, in the form of a tolerable daily intake (TDI), for use in site investigations across Australia for PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS.

These final health-based guidance values replaced the interim health reference values adopted by enHealth (the Environmental Health Standing Committee of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee) in 2016.

A TDI is an estimate of the amount of a chemical in food or drinking water, expressed on a body weight basis, that can be ingested daily over a lifetime without appreciable health risk to the consumer.

Health-based guidance values for assessing the quality of drinking water, recreational water and direct contact with soil (based on the Commonwealth Department of Health TDIs) are included in the PFAS National Environmental Management Plan.

I live near a site under investigation for PFAS contamination—can I use bore water to water my vegetable garden or provide water for my animals/poultry?

Public drinking water from the tap (scheme water) is tested by water service providers and is safe to drink and use.

People with private bores are advised to have their bore water professionally tested periodically. There are laboratories in WA that are able to test for PFAS. General information on having your bore water tested is available in DWER’s fact sheet Contaminated groundwater—could my garden bore be affected? If you are advised to stop using your bore because testing has shown the groundwater is contaminated, please follow this advice.

The WA Department of Health advises that untested, untreated bore water should never be used for drinking, bathing, watering edible plants, filling swimming and paddling pools, food preparation or cooking and children should not play under bore water sprinklers.

See the WA Department of Health’s information on per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances.

Where is the ambient PFAS coming from?

Historical activities such as extinguishing urban fires, fire training activities, minor spills and washing of fire-fighting vehicles and equipment are likely to have released PFAS into the environment across a wide area. PFAS has since been transported to groundwater by infiltration and washed into to urban lakes through creeks and stormwater drains.

Low-level PFAS in Perth’s groundwater appears to be mostly ‘legacy’ PFAS from historical use of firefighting foams between the 1960s and the early 2000s. Urban lakes are also likely to be impacted by historical fire-fighting foams, but also with PFAS that may have leached from old landfills or septage waste disposal sites.

Does ambient PFAS in Perth pose a health risk to the public?

As the concentrations of ambient PFAS found in Perth’s lakes and groundwater are below Australian health-based guideline values, ambient environmental PFAS in Perth doesn’t pose a health risk to the general public. 

PFAS are used in many common household products, such as non-stick cooking equipment, carpets treated for stain resistance, clothing and food packaging, so most of us are routinely exposed to very low levels of PFAS in everyday life. This is unlikely to be harmful to our health. Recent studies show people's exposure to PFAS in the general environment is reducing as uses of PFAS are phased out.

Does ambient PFAS in Perth pose a risk to wildlife?

PFAS have been shown to be toxic to some wildlife, and freshwater species are particularly sensitive to PFAS. Some PFAS compounds can bioaccumulate and biomagnify - meaning that the concentrations of PFAS in the bodies of animals higher up the food chain may be higher than PFAS concentrations in the water they inhabit. The effects of accumulated PFAS in animals higher up the food chain (such as turtles, snakes, water birds, etc.) is difficult to study and currently not well understood.

Urban lakes in the older inner suburbs of Perth have concentrations of PFAS, along with many other historical contaminants such as metals and pesticides, that may be harmful to freshwater animals.

How do the levels of ambient PFAS in Perth compare with PFAS in other places around the world?

The concentrations of ambient PFAS found in Perth are similar to those found in ambient investigations in Victoria and Queensland, so they seem to be typical for Australian cities. In urban areas overseas where PFAS have been manufactured, or used in large industrial processes, much higher ambient levels have been found.

What can be done about PFAS in our lakes and groundwater?

Ambient PFAS in urban lakes and groundwater is very widespread and present at low concentrations, so treating or removing the PFAS isn’t feasible. The department’s approach to dealing with legacy PFAS and other contaminants from urban activities is to focus on better management of stormwater run-off so as to reduce the input of contaminants into our streams and lakes. The department also works to identify contaminated sites where point sources of PFAS are found and oversees the investigation and remediation of these sites.

Researchers at WA universities, DWER and other organisations, are carrying out research to improve our understanding of the impacts of urban contamination on aquatic wildlife and how to reduce these impacts.

Will ambient PFAS concentrations get worse?

PFAS are no longer routinely used in fire-fighting foams, and the use of PFAS in many other products is being phased out. Potential sources of PFAS release to environment, and the amount of PFAS that can be released from such sources are therefore decreasing over time. There are not expected to be any ‘new’ inputs of PFAS to the urban environment so the concentrations of PFAS in urban lakes and groundwater should not increase.

PFAS does not break down in the environment, but it does adsorb to soils and sediments. Over time, PFAS concentrations in lakes and groundwater will gradually decrease as the PFAS becomes bound up within lake sediments and soil particles.

What is DWER's role in dealing with the legacy of PFAS use throughout WA?

DWER is working with other government agencies to address issues related to PFAS in WA. The department contributes to ongoing development of the PFAS National Environmental Management Plan (PFAS NEMP), which provides governments across Australia with a consistent, practical, risk-based framework for the environmental regulation of PFAS-contaminated materials and sites.

DWER uses the PFAS NEMP 2.0 to inform regulation of PFAS-contaminated sites in Western Australia under the Contaminated Sites Act 2003.

Are PFAS-containing firefighting foams still used in WA?

As a signatory to the Intergovernmental Agreement on a National Framework for Responding to PFAS Contamination, Western Australia has endorsed the National PFAS Position Statement (Appendix D to the Agreement), which outlines a nationally unified vision for reducing future PFAS use in Australia.  In accordance with the Position Statement, ongoing sale or use of products (i.e. chemical based formulations) and articles (i.e. objects that contain chemicals) that contain long-chain PFAS, for any industrial or commercial application, should be phased out, in line with the Stockholm Convention.

Transitioning away from the use of chemicals that cause irreversible or long-term contamination of Australia’s environment should be the ultimate goal for all users of PFAS in Australia. Where short-chain PFAS are used in aqueous film forming foam (because no suitable and less hazardous alternatives are available), they should only be used in emergency situations. Any releases should be fully contained and wastes managed in accordance with the PFAS NEMP.  Replacement chemicals should be degradable in the natural environment and not be bio-accumulative.

The Department of Fire and Emergency Services has advised it phased out use of PFOS-based AFFF in 2003.

How long are investigations at PFAS-contaminated sites likely to take?

Because investigations into the likely source and extent of contaminants involve detailed scientific analysis, they may take more than 12 months to complete. In the meantime, DWER recommends that groundwater bores and surface water are tested to ensure that the water is suitable for use.

More Information

DWER will update this page as new information comes to hand.

If you have queries or would like more information, call the Contaminated Sites hotline on 1300 762 982.

Page reviewed 2 December 2022