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Senate committee hands down PFAS remediation recommendations

A Coordinator-General should be appointed to manage the national response to PFAS contamination, a Senate committee has recommended.

In its report, Inquiry into the management of PFAS contamination in and around defence bases, the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade set out nine recommendations it said would improve the Federal Government’s approach to the issue.

This includes establishing a Coordinator-General’s office to monitor PFAS levels and drive effective responses to contamination across the country.

“The Coordinator-General should publish draft remediation and management plans for each investigation area and … continue support for research into remediation technologies, including disposal of contaminated soil and residue from water treatment plants,” the report said.

PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) have been used for a variety of applications, most notably in firefighting foams. In Australia, concerns about PFAS have mainly focused on Air Force bases, although other locations have also been affected.

Although the Environmental Health Standing Committee (enHealth) said there is currently “no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse human health effects”, the uncertainty means exposure should be reduced.

The Department of Defence began phasing out its use of legacy firefighting foam containing certain types of PFAS in 2004.

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PFAS chemicals resist physical, chemical and biological degradation, and are very stable.

“Their high solubility in water means that PFAS readily leach from soil to groundwater, where they can move long distances,” the PFAS National Environmental Management Plan states.

“When the groundwater reaches the surface, the PFAS will enter creeks, rivers and lakes. There it can become part of the food chain, being transferred from organism to organism.”

The Senate report recommended the Federal Government review its existing advice in relation to the human health effects of PFAS and take measures to improve participation in the voluntary blood testing program.

This would include: increasing community awareness about the purpose and importance of the tests; simplifying the testing process; extending the program to additional areas; and ensuring Australia’s testing strategy is comparable to international studies.

As there is currently no national ban on using PFAS, the report also recommended the Federal Government implement legislation restricting the use of firefighting foams that contain long-chain PFAS.

The Federal Government should also “urgently ratify the listing of PFOS [perfluorooctane sulfonate] under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants”.  

This is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from chemicals that remain intact for long periods and become widely distributed.

Read the full report here.

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