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National PFAS Investigation and Management Program

Guidance - Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

National FAQs


Answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) regarding the PFAS Investigation and Management Program are available below. As the investigations progress, FAQs will be added and updated.

THE PFAS CHEMICALS

What are perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS), and what are they used for?

PFOS, PFHxS and PFOA are man-made chemicals belonging to the group known as perfluorinated chemicals.

Perfluorooctane (per-floo-row-ok-tane) sulfonate (sul-fon-ate) (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic (per-floo-row-ok-tan-oh-eek) acid (PFOA) and perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS) are types of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

These chemicals have been used for various applications around the world since the 1950’s, including Australia.

Until recently, this group of chemicals was known as perfluorinated chemicals, or PFC’s. The name change to PFAS has come about to avoid confusion with another group of chemicals related to climate change, which are also known as PFC’s.

They are stable chemical compounds that do not break down in the environment. They remain in the environment, on properties and in trace amounts in humans for a long time.

PFAS have typically been used to make coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, water and grease across Australia and around the world.

Common household products and specialty applications where PFAS may be present include: the manufacture of non-stick cookware; fabric, furniture and carpet stain protection applications; food packaging; and in some industrial processes.

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What is Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) and why has it been used?

Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) has been used in Australia and worldwide for many years to assist with fire training drills, emergency/disaster event training and the like, by government and private sector organsations. This includes Defence military base locations, civilian aerodromes and industrial facilities around Australia.

AFFF is the most effective fire-fighting medium for liquid fuel fires to ensure human safety in emergency situations. AFFF acts quickly to smother fuel, preventing contact with oxygen by adding a thin film of foam over the fire surface.

The detection of PFAS from the previous use of AFFF products is therefore a national and international matter that is not unique to Defence.

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Does Defence currently use AFFF for fire-fighting training activities?

From 2004, the Department of Defence commenced phasing out its use of legacy aqueous film forming foams (AFFF) containing PFOS and PFOA as active ingredients and progressively transitioned to a less environmentally toxic and persistent product called Ansulite for use on the Defence estate. The product currently used by Defence does not contain PFOS and PFOA as active ingredients and only contains trace elements of the chemicals.

Defence-owned facilities have also been upgraded where fire-fighting foams are used to create closed systems. Closed systems are designed to capture spent fire-fighting foam and minimise the risk of such foams being released into the environment. Fire-fighting foam that is captured is disposed of in accordance with best practice regulations and standards.

Defence has also upgraded facilities at fire-fighting training locations around Australia in order to capture and treat wastewater run off from Defence training activities.

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HEALTH

Defence cannot provide health advice as this is the role of respective State and/or local health authorities and practitioners. Defence’s position on health issues relating to PFAS aligns with the enHealth guidance statements as outlined by the Australian Government Department of Health.

Will PFAS affect my health?

Most people living in developed nations will have levels of PFAS in their body as these compounds have been used in common household and industrial applications. The most common pathway is believed to be ingestion from PFAS contaminated food and drink.

According to the Environmental Health Standing Committee (enHealth) Guidance Statements on per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, released in June 2016, there is currently no consistent evidence that exposure to these PFAS causes adverse human health effects.

However, because PFAS compounds persist in humans and the environment, enHealth recommends that human exposure is minimised as a precaution.

Fact sheets and further information on the affects of PFAS on your health are available on the Department of Health Website.

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Will the environmental investigation assess the ways in which humans and the environment may be exposed to PFAS?

If required, Defence will cooperate with State and Territory Governments to undertake human health and ecological risk assessments. These human health and ecological risk assessments test PFAS levels in animals and plants that are part of the human food chain, as well as some that are not.

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What is the Voluntary Blood Testing Program?

On 30 November 2016 the Australian Government commenced funding a Voluntary Blood Testing Program for residents who live close to Defence military bases at Oakey, QLD and Williamtown, NSW. This includes pre- and post-blood test counseling that informs and educates recipients on what the results may mean for them, and their families. More information on the Voluntary Blood Testing program can be found at the Australian Government Department of Health website.

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THE PFAS ENVIRONMENTAL PROGRAM

What environmental investigation is Defence undertaking?

Defence proactively initiated a program of investigations to identify the extent and levels of PFAS on, and in the vicinity of, some bases. We are working in cooperation with commonwealth, state, and local authorities as well as affected residents and property owners to carry out this important program. Verified assessment test results are made available to the affected communities, and shared with relevant state/territory, and local authorities to assist with forward planning and remediation as required. The investigations are undertaken within designated investigation areas, by experienced environmental service providers, in accordance with the National Environment Protection (Assessment of Site Contamination) Measure 1999 (NEPM). Environmental investigations typically include:

  • Reviewing the historical use, storage and management of AFFF to identify possible contamination sources;
  • Community and stakeholder engagement information and events, including a water-use survey;
  • Sampling soil, surface water and groundwater on, and off the military base investigation area to assess potential PFAS exposure;
  • Sampling and testing of local groundwater bores and monitoring wells within and surrounding investigation areas;
  • Identifying pathways to how PFAS entered the environment and how it is passed from source to humans, animals and plants;
  • Where necessary, undertake a Human Health and Ecological Risk Assessment, which will assess risks to the population and ecology, and inform mitigating initiatives;
  • Provision of alternative water supplies, on request to eligible households; and
  • Ongoing liaison with relevant federal, state and local government authorities in relation to possible health and environmental effects from PFAS contamination.

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What screening criteria are used in Defence environmental investigations?

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) released health based guidance values for PFAS on 5 April 2017. These guidance values replaced interim advice developed by the Environmental Health Standing Committee in June 2016. Defence has adopted the FSANZ guidance values for all current and future investigations and assessments. The FSANZ guidance values can be viewed on the Department of Health Website.

Can I request samples of PFAS impacted soil and water to assist with research or trials?

Requests from organisations and individuals for samples of contaminated soil and water should be sent to PFAS.Coordination@Defence.gov.au for review and consideration.

Where requests for samples of contaminated soil and water are granted, the individual or organisation will be required to agree and sign-up to the Defence Deed that relates to access of PFAS contaminated materials.

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Will Defence test my animals or plants?

Targeted plant and animal testing will be undertaken based on the technical requirements of the investigation area and information gathered in the community land use survey.

It will not be necessary to collect samples from all plant and animal species within the investigation area.

Defence will contact landholders and residents who may be able to assist the investigation with testing. Permission will be sought before any sampling occurs at your property.

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WATER

Is my drinking water affected by PFAS?

Defence investigations have discovered PFAS contaminated bore and tank water on some properties within investigation areas.

If PFAS are detected in your bore or tank water and you have no alternative drinking water source, the Project team will discuss possible management strategies and alternative water supplies with you.

Further information about managing tank water can be found on the Guidance on use of rain water tanks. FAQs on Water can be found here

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Do you test for drinking water or surface water like rivers and creeks?

During preliminary assessments of an investigation area, if drinking water (including bores and tank water) and surface water areas are deemed to be potentially contaminated with PFAS, then further investigation of these areas will occur.

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Do you test groundwater?

Where applicable, Defence assesses the hydrogeology of investigation sites to detect the presence of PFAS in the groundwater. This typically involves:

  • periodic sampling and testing of ground and surface water;
  • targeted soil and sediment sampling;
  • installation of groundwater monitoring wells to test groundwater quality and understand how groundwater moves through aquifers;
  • numerical modeling to predict future movement of PFAS in groundwater; and
  • measuring surface water flow.

Enquiries regarding waterways testing, outside of the investigation area, should be directed to your respective State Environmental Protection Authority.

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What is the limit of reporting for water samples?

The limit of reporting is the lowest concentration of any substance being tested that a laboratory can detect. For example, the laboratories used by Defence can detect PFOS, PFHxS and PFOA, respectively, in a water sample at 0.01 micrograms per litre (µg/L) and in soil at 0.0005 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg). If test results return as less than the limit of reporting this does not mean that there is no PFOS, PFHxS or PFOA in the sample, only that the laboratory was not able to detect them in the sample.

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What can I do if PFAS are detected in my drinking water e.g. bore or tank water?

If PFOS, PFHxS or PFOA are detected in your bore or tank water and you have no alternative drinking water source, the Project team will discuss possible management strategies and alternative water supplies with you. As a precaution, and irrespective of any actual measured concentrations in bore and/or tank water, Defence will consider supplying eligible residents, within the investigation area with an alternative water supply for drinking and domestic use. For more information please refer to the Support page of this website and refer to the Guidance on use of water tanks.

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My drinking water is contaminated. What now?

The Environmental Health Standing Committee of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (enHealth) advises that there is currently no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse human health effects.

However, because PFAS chemicals persist in humans and the environment, enHealth recommends that human exposure to PFAS chemicals should be minimised as a precaution. Defence adopts a precautionary approach and will assess eligible household’s drinking water requirements on a case-by-case basis.

Households within the investigation area, that do not have a town water connection and drink bore water (directly or via rainwater tanks), are welcome to contact the Project team to discuss possible management strategies. These may include:

  • Supplying clean bottled water;
  • Refilling rainwater tanks with potable water; and
  • Sampling and testing domestic swimming pools that are filled and maintained with bore water.

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Is my water tank suitable?

Before a household can start receiving tank water, an assessment of the condition of the rainwater tank will be made by Defence. If the tank is suitable for cleaning and re-filling with potable water, Defence will arrange this. A sample of water from the point of use e.g. kitchen tap will be collected, analysed and results sent to the household.

If the tank is not suitable for cleaning and re-filling with potable water, residents may receive bottled water while the investigation is ongoing, or until a review of alternative water supply occurs.

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Am I eligible for water assistance?

Water assistance enquiries should be directed to the Project team by phone or email. You will be asked to complete a short survey to gather information about your water use to assess your eligibility for alternative water.

If you are eligible for water assistance, Defence will arrange delivery of alternative water supplies free of charge, on a regular basis.

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How long will water assistance last?

The duration of water assistance will depend on:

  • The outcomes of Defence’s environmental investigation; and
  • each household situation related to water use and available options assessed on a case-by-case basis.
The provision of alternative water supplies by Defence will be reviewed on completion of the environmental investigation, or sooner, if information obtained during the environmental investigation suggests such a review is warranted.

The Project team will contact households directly about any proposed changes to water assistance arrangements.

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PROPERTY

Will my property (bore, pool, dam, creek, water tank) be tested?

If your property is selected for testing as part of the investigation, you will receive a letter and consent form seeking permission to sample your property. You will be requested to contact the Project team to arrange a suitable date and time.

Not every property in the investigation area needs to be tested to estimate the extent of PFAS in the investigation area.

The location of future investigation sites will be guided by the data gathered and the technical information needed to progress the investigation.

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Can I ask for my property (bore, pool, dam, creek, water tank) to be tested?

Yes, you can ask. Households should contact the Project team and complete a Water Use Survey for eligibility assessment. Priority is generally given to properties within the investigation area and where residents use bore water for drinking. A decision about whether the property will be sampled or not sampled will be provided to landholders within 7-10 days of the Water Use Survey being received.

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How are residential bores and tanks sampled?

Residential bores, extraction bores and tanks are sampled to measure water quality (with respect to PFAS) at the point it is used. The first flush sampling method is used to understand the quality of water that comes out of the bore or tank when the tap or pump is turned on.

If targeted PFAS compounds have accumulated in pipe work and are released into water during the first flush, the sample will include them.

The following steps are undertaken when using the first flush sampling method. These steps follow strict procedures, consistent with relevant Australian standards to ensure data integrity:

  • laboratory-supplied sample containers are prepared and labeled;
  • a fresh pair of nitrile gloves is used by the field staff member taking the sample;
  • a container is placed beneath a tap outlet (connected to a bore or tank) and the tap is slowly opened to collect the first draw;
  • the container is filled to the top and capped tightly;
  • the sample is immediately placed in a cooler;
  • field water quality parameters are recorded from tap water collected in a secondary container e.g. pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen, electrical conductivity and reduction/oxidation potential; and
  • general observations of water quality are recorded, including colour, turbidity and odour.

All samples are transported under industry standard chain of custody procedures to a National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) accredited laboratory.

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How long will the sampling team need to be at my property?

The sampling team may need to be at your property for up to an hour depending on the number of samples to be collected.

In addition, the landholder or a representative may need to be present on site, during the sampling, to assist in operating the bore and with safe property access e.g. ensuring pets or livestock are secured, gates unlocked, electric fencing is turned off etc.

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How long will it take to receive my test results?

It may take up to five weeks for results to reach you.

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REMEDIATION

What is Defence doing in relation to remedial options?

The best remedial options for investigation sites are determined by site-specific factors such as the site’s hydrogeology, the nature and extent of PFAS detections and access to the site.

The detailed site investigation assists in determining the most appropriate remedial strategies for a particular site.

View the PFAS Management and Remedial Options Fact Sheet for an outline of what remedial options are currently undertaken.

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INFORMATION AND ASSISTANCE

How can I find out more and be kept informed about the environmental investigation?

Defence will regularly update the investigation site community during the investigation. Updates will be delivered through community information sessions, advice from the Project team, fact sheets and the website, including these FAQs.

For more information please contact the Defence environmental investigation Project team or the National PFAS Environmental Management Program website.

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I am considering requesting compensation. How do I do this?

Individual claims for compensation will be considered on a case by case basis. How to make a claim is outlined on the PFAS Environmental Program website.

Note that Defence cannot advise landholders, property owners and residents about legal representation or conditions offered by legal representatives.

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Defence Investigation Site Specific FAQs

As the investigations are conducted, frequently asked questions may be developed and put on the appropriate Defence website. Please refer to the site near you as listed below:

For further information or enquiries please refer to the contacts page.