An update on PFAS

Last year we published a blog post introducing our capabilities to assess and manage PFAS (Per- and Poly-fluoroalkyl substances), and in that post we introduced you to what they are, why they are considered to be an ‘emerging contaminant of concern’, where the current focus for PFAS in New Zealand has been directed, and provided you with some guidelines around PFAS from the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) - you can read the full blog post here.

We also addressed how PFAS compounds are prevalent in our everyday lives. For example, many of you may not know that PFCs (Per-fluorinated chemicals), including PFOS (Perfluoroocane sulfonate) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), have been used in the production of commercially available products such as oil and water-resistant coatings on textiles and upholstery (i.e. carpets, leather, paints and inks), hydraulic fluids in some medical devices, Teflon products, colour printer / photo-copier parts, and some insecticides for a while now.

The main cause for concern is that PFCs are extremely water soluble and therefore persistent in the environment. Plus, their impact on humans is still being researched and understood, and there is a lack of long-term and consistent evidence demonstrating what the risks to humans might be.

However, in certain animals, research has shown that certain PFAS may affect their growth and behaviour development, impact female fertility, increase cholesterol, and affect the immune system. But as humans and animals process these chemicals differently, more research needs to be done to determine how humans might be impacted.

On the other hand, there have been conflicting reports as to whether PFAS even pose a risk to human health. For example, while there have been studies and legal action undertaken in the USA suggesting PFAS do pose a risk to human health; the Australian Department of Health has stated that while there is evidence to suggest a risk to animals and fauna, there is no clear evidence to suggest there are risks to human health. Although, this has been caveated by stating sufficient data of risk to human health does not yet exist due to bio-accumulation and latent periods from exposure.

Ongoing studies suggest bio-accumulation of PFAS in the body may pose a greater risk to human health than exposure through contact / ingestion with PFAS found in soil or groundwater. Thus, the focus of most research in PFAS is now directed toward biota sampling, particularly the accumulation of PFAS in flora and fauna which may subsequently enter the food chain (such as freshwater fish, eels and watercress).

Watercress growing in New Zealand

Watercress growing in New Zealand

Our understanding of PFAS is constantly evolving in this rapidly developing field as new research and guidelines from regulatory authorities around the world are published. In New Zealand, the response to PFAS has involved an all of government approach led by MfE, which has largely focused on the historical use of PFC containing fire-fighting foams at airports and defence bases that have leached into soil and groundwater (updates on the MfE response to PFAS and fire-fighting foam use are published on their website).

As part of the MfE response a Draft Sampling and Analysis of Per- and Poly-fluorinated Substances guideline was published for consultation in late-2018. The purpose of which is to provide New Zealand specific-guidance on the assessment of PFAS in the environment; as prior to the publication of this document, international guidance was used from both Australia and the USA, including the January 2018 Heads of the Environment Protection Agencies of Australia and New Zealand (HEPA) publication PFAS National Environment Management Plan (PFAS NEMP).

Improved local guidelines and a uniform approach to assessment has driven the development of improved laboratory analytical procedures, as many analytical laboratories are now capable of conducting PFC analysis in a range of media in New Zealand rather than looking to overseas laboratories.  The improvement in analytical techniques has allowed for parts per trillion level PFAS analysis and robust assessments as to whether a risk is or may be posed to human health and/or the environment to be undertaken.

While the focus within New Zealand, and internationally, when looking at PFAS has largely been to look at the use of water-soluble fire-fighting foams at large facilities, and their affect on groundwater, there has been a shift in this thinking. Many more sources of PFAS compounds are likely to exist. As listed above, PFAS compounds are in many every-day items; many of which will end up in landfill. As such, landfills, and water treatment plants are likely to be the next big focus for investigation for the presence of PFAS compounds, as well as large manufacturing facilities which operated in the 1970s – 1990s.

Since circa-2013 PFAS have been considered to be an emerging contaminant of concern; but with recent research suggesting persistence in the environment, and the current lack of understanding around its potential risks to human health, it can be concluded that PFAS is a contaminant of concern.

Here at 4Sight we are well placed to provide the most efficient investigation strategies in relation to PFAS, taking advantage of innovative cutting-edge technologies to provide the best project outcomes. 4Sight staff have conducted PFAS investigations at sites in both New Zealand and Australia, and are well versed in the intricate sampling protocols required for sampling potentially PFAS affected sites.

Given our strong respect for cultural and Māori values, including our links with iwi, we are also able to liaise and advise local iwi who may be affected by PFAS impacting waterways; how those impacts may affect traditional practices, and the appropriate management options available to them.

For more information on 4Sight’s PFAS investigation services, please get in touch with James Blackwell: jamesb@4sight.co.nz or Nigel Mather: nigelm@4sight.co.nz.