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New study traces PFAS contamination back to the source

New research could help authorities not only remediate PFAS-contaminated water, but pinpoint where the chemicals originated.

Concern about PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) contamination has grown in Australia in the past few years, most notably around their use in legacy firefighting foams.

While researchers are already working on treating and neutralising the contaminants, Director of the University of New South Wales’ Water Research Centre Professor Denis O’Carroll is trying to understand how they move through the environment.

This is important as where other contaminants might stay in water or soil, O’Carroll said PFAS are extremely stable and can travel easily from water to soil to animals to fish to humans.

For example, PFAS used in firefighting foam at the Williamtown RAAF Base in New South Wales were found kilometres away in groundwater, seawater, and agricultural and seafood supplies.

“Some studies suggest that almost every person on Earth has them in their bloodstream, which gives some indication of the scale of the problem,” O’Carroll said.

Professor Denis O'Carroll investigating PFAS in the lab. Professor Denis O'Carroll in the lab.

“If we know how they move, we can trace where they’ve come from and clean them up at the source.”

PFAS are made up of thousands of molecules, each with their own unique signature, which O’Carroll said can be used to identify where they came from.

“This means you can look at the signature of the contaminant downstream, identify if it came from a groundwater source or a surface water source, then track it backwards,” he said.

As well as helping researchers work out the best way to treat PFAS contamination, looking at the signature of the compound will also help prove who is responsible.

O’Carroll used the example of an airport with firefighting training facilities located next to a company that treats carpets.

“Either might be responsible for a water source contamination problem, but our methods should allow us to pinpoint with certainty where they came from,” he said.

“You can imagine how useful this would be in the clean up, as well as any potential future litigation.”

O’Carroll is currently halfway through a four-year research project, which he said would benefit not just the environment but the water industry as well.

“There will be huge opportunities for industry to use our research to develop cost-effective solutions to identify and clean up the source,” he said.

“If we could do that rapidly, that would be ideal.”

Want to know more about PFAS? Don't miss the PFAS and the Water Industry – Regulation, Industry Response and Treatment Options workshop at Ozwater'19 in Melbourne.