The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) initiated an investigation program in 2016 to assess the legacy of per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) use across NSW. The investigation is prioritising sites around NSW where PFAS were used in significant quantities and is focussing on airports, defence bases, fire fighting training facilities (including fire fighting stations) and some industrial sites.
NSW Mines Rescue (Mines Rescue) voluntarily entered the investigation program earlier this year, beginning with a preliminary soil and sediment sampling plan around its Hunter Valley and Newcastle facilities. It was expected to find traces of the chemicals in the soils due to usage of fire fighting foam containing PFAS (prior to 2002). The levels triggered a decision tree used by the EPA to determine if further investigation is warranted.
The Lithgow station has had limited exposure to PFAS-containing products due to facility management processes, but will now undergo a preliminary investigation as a further precautionary step.
The Woonona station will not undergo testing. Mines Rescue has operated from this premise since 2008; after PFAS was phased out at Mines Rescue.
GHD, has been appointed to conduct the upcoming investigations. The emphasis of the investigations will be on identifying potential contamination in surrounding ground water.
It is important to note that the EPA’s preliminary assessment is that the likelihood of a significant actual pathway to human exposure is low, due largely to the town water supply to the areas.
Advice from the EPA and NSW Department of Health continues to be that there is no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse human health effects. However, based on the evidence from animal studies potential adverse health effects cannot be excluded and for this reason a precautionary principle approach has been adopted.
Mines Rescue is working closely with the EPA to undertake preliminary investigations and determine any necessary actions.
Overview of PFAS
What are PFAS?
Per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are man-made chemicals that have been widely used in industrial and consumer products since the mid-1900s.
PFAS is a generic name for over 30 long chain polymers.
Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS) are three of the main PFAS of concern that were historically used in fire fighting foams.
Why are PFAS compounds a concern?
PFAS have been identified as an emerging contaminant.
PFAS are highly resistant to degradation and highly persistent in the environment. They are readily mobilised by ground water and surface water flows and are bio-accumulative in the food chain.
Elevated levels of PFAS in the blood take a long time to subside after exposure stops.
Where are PFAS found?
Since PFAS have water, grease and oil repelling properties, PFAS have been widely used in fire retardants, water proofing, food preparation, food packaging, furnishings, clothing and recreational equipment.
Most people will come into contact with PFAS at some point through every day products such as:
textiles and leather
water repellent sprays
shampoos, shaving cream and cosmetics
fire fighting foams
Like many chemicals, traces of PFAS are likely to be found in ground water, surface water and soils in many urban areas due to their wide-spread use in everyday household items and their persistence in the environment.
It is possible that elevated concentrations of these chemicals might be found in soil, surface water and ground water. Fire fighting training grounds are one area that has been identified where a higher concentration might be found due to the use of fire fighting foams containing PFAS. Such grounds include defence bases, airports, Fire and Rescue and Mines Rescue training facilities.
Usage of fire fighting substances equate to around 3% of overall PFAS usage globally.
PFAS are not banned substances and are still used in some instances where a suitable alternative is not available, such as in metal plating and aviation hydraulics industries.
It should be noted that PFAS foam remains one of the most effective substances for extinguishing fires.
Are PFAS still being used by Mines Rescue?
No. Mines Rescue had discontinued use of PFAS-containing products by 2002.
The decision to stop use PFAS-containing products was taken by Mines Rescue in 2001 following the initial concerns raised by the US Environment Protection Agency about their persistence in the environment.
In 2003, the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS), a statutory scheme administered by the Australian Government Department of Health, issued an advice that PFAS-containing products should be restricted to essential use only, and not be used for fire fighting training.
The importation of many PFAS-containing products (including fire fighting foams) was phased out in Australia in 2003 but there was no ban on the continued use of existing stock.
What is the impact of PFAS contamination?
Although trace levels of these substances are common, the general population in NSW and around Australia are largely not impacted by historical PFAS use and environmental contamination.
Evidence of declining levels of these substances in the blood serum of the general population over time suggests that exposures across the population are generally declining.
Presence of PFAS in soil does not pose a health risk but the soil may be a conduit for the chemical to travel to water sources which may then be consumed by humans or livestock, used to irrigate crops and produce or potentially contaminate fish.
What about people living in an area where contamination has been identified?
Simply living near a contaminated site is not considered a health risk.
People are most likely to be exposed to PFAS through drinking contaminated bore water or surface water, or eating home grown produce where this water has been used (such as eggs, milk, meat, fruit or vegetables) or eating seafood caught in affected areas.
For people with highly elevated PFAS levels in the blood, the predominant cause is via direct ingestion of drinking water (greater than 95%).
For people who live in an area where elevated levels of PFAS have been detected, structured investigation programs will identify potential exposure pathways and key environmental receptors. If deemed necessary, advice to reduce or eliminate exposure to PFAS will be provided at this point.
NSW Department of Health states that there is no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse human health effects.
EPA’s state-wide program
The EPA regularly investigates contaminants in the environment which are known to pose or may potentially pose, a risk to human health.
The EPA is seeking to better understand the extent of PFAS use and any resulting contamination in NSW.
The program is a precautionary approach as it recognises that PFAS are widespread in the environment due to their use in a wide range of products and their persistent nature.
Because human health effects cannot be excluded, and these chemicals take a long time to break down, the NSW Government has elected to apply a precautionary principle approach until the extent and impact of the substance on human and ecological health is determined.
Like many chemicals, PFAS are commonly found in the environment at low levels due to their wide-spread use over many decades, therefore the EPA is focussing its investigation on sites in NSW where the greatest use of PFAS-containing products has taken place.
This includes sites with known significant use of PFAS-containing fire fighting foams such as airports, fire fighting training facilities and some industrial sites.
Given the use of PFAS at Mines Rescue sites, Mines Rescue has voluntarily joined the investigation as a precautionary measure
Investigations are conducted in a phased approach with each phase taking several months. The outcome of each phase determines whether further investigation or actions are required. You can keep informed about the investigation process at http://www.epa.nsw.gov.au/MediaInformation/pfasinvestigation.htm or call the Environment Line on 131 555.
PFAS at Mines Rescue sites
Are there preliminary findings?
Preliminary investigations have included targeted environmental site assessments (ESA) of soil and sediment both on site and immediately adjacent to our facilities which have found the presence of Per/Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) at levels in excess of NSW EPA decision tree triggers at both the Newcastle and Hunter Valley Mines Rescue Stations.
The detection of some PFAS in the area is not unexpected given the past use of PFAS-containing fire fighting foam at the site.
It should be noted this is a legacy issue relating to a chemical which was permitted to be used for many years and Mines Rescue facilities have adhered to correct usage and disposal protocols. Independent environmental audits have been ongoing, which validate compliance.
What do these results mean for local residents?
The presence of PFAS in the environment does not necessarily mean there is a human health risk.
The presence of PFAS in the soil alone poses no health concern but it is important to assess if there are pathways for the chemical to travel to water sources which people might consume, use for irrigation of produce or livestock or consume indirectly through contaminated fish. Further investigations will be undertaken to determine the likelihood of this.
The EPA’s preliminary analysis is that the likelihood of a significant actual pathway to human exposure is low, due largely to the town water supply to the area.
The EPA is working with other NSW Government agencies to better understand the potential risks posed to human health and the environment from PFAS.
What will happen next?
To date, sampling has been preliminary. Based on these findings the NSW Government considers that further testing is required, including sampling of surface water, ground water, sediments and soils around the site.
Mines Rescue has agreed to conduct further investigations which will identify if there is a contamination issue including whether there are exposure pathways offsite. This will help to identify or discount potential health or environmental impacts for the surrounding areas and local community.
Further investigations at the Hunter Valley and Newcastle facilities began in early August with findings expected to be available by the end of September. The Lithgow facility has had limited usage of PFAS-containing products but is also undergoing a preliminary investigation as a further precautionary step.
The EPA and Mines Rescue will work closely with stakeholders to keep the local community informed of the investigation process, and aware of any key developments.
Mines Rescue Sites Participating in the Program
Hunter Valley Mines Rescue
6 Lachlan Avenue, Singleton Heights NSW 2330.
Newcastle Mines Rescue
533 Lake Road, Argenton
Lithgow Mines Rescue
3 Proto Avenue, Lithgow
PFAS and Human Health Effects
Are there confirmed human health effects of PFAS contamination?
No. The Department of Health states that there is no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse human health effects
Much of the research on humans has been done with people who were exposed to relatively high levels of PFAS through their work. Studies on PFAS workers have looked for effects on cholesterol levels, male hormones, heart disease, liver changes and other effects, including cancer. These studies have not consistently shown that PFAS exposure is linked to health problems.
In humans, PFAS is understood to be expelled through urine overtime. However, because human health effects cannot be excluded, and these chemicals take a long time to break down in humans and the environment, the NSW Government is taking a precautionary principle approach.
Mines Rescue is committed to being open and transparent about these investigations. We will update the community at key stages throughout the investigations, and we encourage the community to contact us about their concerns.
Mines Rescue is working closely with the EPA, GHD and local Councils to provide updates to the communities. We will use appropriate channels including: media releases, website, door knocking and community forums (as required) to provide education of the issue, evidence-based justification for why both sites are ‘low risk’ and an overview of the investigation, next steps and when updates on the initial results will be provided (and how).
Mines Rescue, in partnership with the EPA, GHD and both Councils, will assess if activities such as community meetings are needed and whether attendance by other NSW agency representatives such as NSW Health is required as results come to light.
Where to get more information
For more information or to provide feedback:
Phone: 1300 001 262
Email: [email protected]Download the PFAS factsheet
Media enquiries should be directed to Coal Services’ Marketing Manager on (02) 6571 9954 or email [email protected]