It has been three years since per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) – chemicals once used in food packaging, cooking hardware and firefighting foam – were first banned in Australia, after being exposed as an environmental and health threat.
Since then the body of evidence highlighting the toxicity of PFAS chemicals has grown, as have confirmed rates of contamination, and the associated healthcare costs, globally.
According to The Nordic Cooperation, PFAS-related health problems – in the form of cancers, foetal development problems and immune dysfunction – still cost the region €52-84 billion annually, despite national programs to eliminate the substance.
For this reason, one of the most commonly-used PFAS chemicals was listed for restriction under the Stockholm Convention in 2019 and is on its way to a global phase-out.
While the removal of hardware items made from PFAS chemicals is relatively straightforward, its elimination from firefighting and other potential contamination sites is more complicated.
With its high persisting properties, PFAS can survive migrations from soil to groundwater, live permanently inside of animals which consume it, contaminate their predators, and make its way through the food chain. It then leaves traces behind in the soil and water supplies when those animals biodegrade.
This could mean that many ecosystems and water supplies – even those a considerable distance from the initial exposure site – are contaminated, and will remain so for decades to come. Indeed, headlines in 2018 were plagued with reports that PFAS had made its way to the North Pole, and was present in the tissue of polar bears – in high quantities.
Fire and Rescue NSW has established its PFAS Environmental Investigation Program using a risk-based approach, developed in consultation with – and approved by – the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA).
The program assesses its fire stations and training sites, which have historically used PFAS containing foam for many years to combat liquid fuel fires.
In a staged approach – designed to optimise resources – it first conducts a desktop review to gather historical information on the use of PFAS containing foam, and to explore the site and surrounding area settings.
Selected sites will then undergo a preliminary site investigation (PSI), including the collection of soil samples – and other media where appropriate – to assess PFAS concentration levels. Depending on the outcome, it will then carry out a detailed site investigation (DSI). This may be followed by other works, such as a full-blown risk assessment, following advice from consultants and discussions with the NSW EPA.
“We typically collect shallow soil samples as a part of the PSI and compare the laboratory results against the relevant land use screening criteria that are available within the current guidelines,” said Program Manager, Melanie Stutchbury, ahead of the PFAS 2020 Forum.
“Sensitive sites, such as schools, have a lower PFAS concentration threshold for progressing to a more detailed site investigation. Meanwhile, sites like industrial estates aren’t considered as sensitive, and therefore, have a higher concentration threshold.
“We also consider the exposure and migration pathways at the site. Is PFAS migrating from the site through surface or ground water? If so, we need to understand water use at – and within the vicinity of – the site to determine its priority and what pathways would require further assessment,” Melanie added.
Fire & Rescue NSW’s risk assessment process uses a database combining anecdotal information from fire stations, and site setting information from environmental consultants, to standardise its decision making.
The anecdotal data typically includes details about AFFF [aqueous film forming foam] storage and usage, including whether the foam was used for training on or off site, how often, and in what quantities.
“Based on the above process, we derive a priority ranking – low, medium or high – to make the process as objective as possible,” said Melanie.
However, not all aspects of the strategy are – or can be – as objective, posing a challenge to the property portfolio management.
“Given the time period since AFFF was used, it is difficult for staff to recall information relating to frequency and use. Information received may indicate that it is a low priority, but if a site is in a sensitive area it may require further assessment as a precautionary measure,” said Melanie.
“Our strategy has had to factor in human and behavioural factors when assessing anecdotal information and extending our desktop assessment criteria to provide a more robust risk assessment process. We also take measures to educate communities and our fire fighters on the nature and risk of exposure pathways on the sites that we investigate.”
The organisation also continually reprioritises and evolves its strategy.
“We can’t afford to get complacent. We are always interrogating our own approach and data and never take anything at face value,” Melanie concluded.
Melanie Stutchbury is a Project Manager at Fire & Rescue NSW,
She is due to co-present at the 2nd Annual PFAS Forum – held as a virtual event on November 13, 2020 – with Mauricio Bressan, Environmental Contamination Specialist Strategic Capability at Fire & Rescue NSW.
Melanie and Mauricio will talk in detail about Fire & Rescue NSW’s PFAS elimination strategy, challenges they have faced along the way and lessons learned.
Joining them on the virtual stage are representatives from the Department of Defence, CSIRO and Clayton Utz.
Learn more and register.