Australia: Is there a role for a Federal EPA on PFAS and other emerging contaminants?

In recent years, communities living in and around Australian Defence bases have become increasingly concerned about the effects of exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). In December 2018, the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (Standing Committee) released the report of the 'Inquiry into the management of PFAS contamination in and around Defence bases', setting out nine recommendations to improve the Federal Government's response to this issue. The recommendations are intended to contain PFAS and ensure the health and financial stability of affected communities.

Uncertainty on impact of PFAS

PFAS is a group of man-made chemicals used since the 1950s in applications including some firefighting foams, industrial processes such as metal plating and plastics etching, and in aviation hydraulic fluid. They are particularly pervasive, can move long distances and their stable chemical structure resists degradation.

Australia does not presently restrict the use of PFAS, although Queensland and South Australia have introduced bans on firefighting foams containing PFAS.

There remains a level of uncertainty about the human health impacts of exposure to PFAS. An Expert Health Panel for PFAS (established to provide independent advice on PFAS to the Government) considers there is no consistent evidence to demonstrate the adverse health effects of PFAS exposure.

However, the Standing Committee believes the Government should take precautionary measures, acknowledging known links between exposure to PFAS and health effects – including that high levels of certain PFAS may affect immunity after vaccination and be toxic to the development of the foetus (German Human Biomonitoring Commission).

Recommendations to the Australian Government

The Standing Committee recommended to the Australian Government that it:

  • appoint a Coordinator-General to coordinate the national response to the PFAS contamination issue;
  • increase investment in the containment of PFAS contamination plumes and the remediation of contaminated land and water sources;
  • review existing advice on the human health effects of PFAS exposure;
  • undertake measures to improve participation in voluntary PFAS blood testing program;
  • assist property owners and businesses in affected areas who have suffered quantifiable financial losses through a compensation scheme;
  • offer free, individualised case management and financial counselling services to those affected by PFAS contamination;
  • implement legislation and policies to ban or restrict PFAS-based firefighting foams and encourage use of PFAS-free alternatives wherever possible;
  • ratify the listing of perfluorooctane sulfonate, a common type of PFAS (and other PFAS when applicable), under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants; and
  • initiate an independent review of environmental regulation of Commonwealth land focused on enhancing regulatory oversight and responses.

A copy of the Standing Committee's Inquiry report can be found here.

Is there a role for a national EPA?

The Federal Government has welcomed the release of the Inquiry report and acknowledged the concerns of communities living in and around Defence bases. It has indicated that it will prioritise supporting affected communities and reducing their exposure to PFAS – for example, by providing alternate drinking water supplies, treating contaminated water and funding research to close knowledge gaps on the health impacts of PFAS. The PFAS Taskforce in the Federal Department of Environment and Energy will provide a coordinated whole-of-Australian-government response setting out more detailed next steps in due course.

The Australian Labor Party has foreshadowed a new Australian Environment Act to replace the current Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, 1999. Relevantly, Labor sees the need for a USA-style federal Environment Protection Agency. If a new Federal EPA eventuates, one of its first tasks may well be to implement the Standing Committee's recommendations.

Is Glyphosate the next PFAS?

Glyphosate is a systemic herbicide extensively used in domestic and agricultural weed control in Australia.

In 2016, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) published a report classifying Glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic to humans", although noting that evidence is limited.

The most commonly known of the 130 registered Glyphosate-based products is Roundup, the patent for which is held by Monsanto.

In 2018, Monsanto was successfully sued in the Superior Court for the County of San Francisco by Dewayne Johnson. He was awarded significant damages including (on appeal) $39 million in punitive damages. The jury found that Glyphosate had contributed to Mr Johnson's Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, Monsanto having failed to warn of the associated health hazard. The company has appealed the decision.

Australia's position

A joint expert taskforce administered by the UN (Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues) reviewed the information considered by IARC and undertook a risk-based evaluation of Glyphosate.

The international taskforce comprised scientists from the World Health Organisation, national governments and universities. It concluded that on the overall weight of evidence, Glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans at likely levels of dietary exposure.

In 2017 the Australian Pesticides & Veterinary Medicine Authority (APVMA) reviewed the taskforce's findings, together with the IARC report. APVMA concluded that Glyphosate does not pose a risk to humans, and can be used safely if applied in accordance with instructions.

More to come?

Following the APVMA's finding on Glyphosate and an ABC Four Corners story last year, the Federal Opposition has called for a Senate inquiry into the independence of the APVMA as a chemical regulator.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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