The environmental and human health impacts from exposure to per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances – known as PFAS chemicals – are a mounting concern in Australia and worldwide.
The unique characteristics of these chemicals mean that even if a site has never made direct use of PFAS it may still be contaminated, putting both the environment and people – both residents and workers – at risk.
According to recent reports there are 10 sites in Sydney, 25 in NSW and 90 nationwide that authorities are currently investigating for elevated levels of PFAS.
Property purchasers, property sellers, developers, construction companies – indeed any enterprise considering significant redevelopment of an existing site – would be wise to conduct appropriate due diligence ahead of finalising their plans in order to determine whether the land has been contaminated by PFAS chemicals.
If there is evidence of contamination then enterprises must address the issue responsibly or expose the business, their staff, and the broader community to significant risk.
Profile of PFAS
PFAS have been used extensively in firefighting foams, and in a broad range of products including non-stick pans and textile treatments. Although largely phased out a decade ago, PFAS are still in limited use, because of their efficacy in fighting petroleum and oil fires.
Despite the limitations now placed on PFAS usage, these chemicals remain problematic to human, animal and environmental health.
They do not easily degrade or decompose, and are very transportable – there is evidence of the chemicals being found as far as 20 km from an original site when carried in ground or surface water. The persistent nature of the chemicals means that even sites which have no record of using PFAS themselves, may be contaminated by adjacent or other local sites.
PFAS also have the potential to bioaccumulate, meaning that humans – being at the top of the food chain – will likely have higher concentrations of PFAS than animals and plants lower down the chain.
The highest profile impact of PFAS in Australia relates to residents living near Defence facilities in Katharine, NT, Williamtown, NSW and Oakey Qld – where PFAS had been used since the 1970s. As a result of complaints and concerns, residents have been offered blood tests and alternative drinking water supplies.
The challenge is not limited to Defence bases however. The longevity and transportability of PFAS make them a risk for virtually any property development or construction projects.