Review should allay fears on PFAS contamination standards

Australia’s Acting Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Hobbs, today welcomed the findings of an independent evaluation of standards for water contamination by per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS).

Page last updated: 09 September 2016

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9 September 2016

Australia’s Acting Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Hobbs, today welcomed the findings of an independent evaluation of standards for water contamination by per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS).

The Australian Government last month ordered a review of the interim human health reference values (toxicity levels) for PFAS in drinking water and recreational water, which were adopted by the Environmental Health Standing Committee, known as enHealth. The review was conducted by chemical residue safety expert, Adjunct Professor Andrew Bartholomaeus.

enHealth operates under the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee and comprises representatives of the Commonwealth and state governments and the New Zealand Government.

enHealth released the interim guidance values in June 2016 after consultation with relevant health experts. The interim guidance values adopted by enHealth are based on the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) guidance values, and are intended for use in site investigations in Australia pending development of final guidance values recommendations by Food Standards Australia New Zealand later this year.

The independent review conducted by Professor Bartholomaeus was to examine the approaches and assumptions used by the EFSA, along with approaches and assumption used by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) to determine the applicability and relevance of both approaches and assumptions in the Australian context.

Dr Hobbs said Professor Bartholomaeus report, Independent Review of toxicity levels of PFAS Chemicals, supported the decision by Australian authorities to use European standards for PFAS as an interim approach to investigating site contamination in Australia.

“This independent review supports the adoption of the European standards as an interim measure in Australia, and the methodology underlying those standards,” Dr Hobbs said.

“It makes the point that the standards used in the United States are not necessarily relevant here, and just choosing the lowest health reference value can cause unwarranted concerns.

He said the assumptions used by the US Environmental Protection Agency were not used by major international agencies outside the US.

“The review should provide some comfort to the affected communities who were understandably confused about the different standards and what this meant for their safety.”

Two sites – Williamtown, New South Wales, and Oakey, Queensland – were contaminated by the use of PFAS chemicals as firefighting foams in Defence facilities.

Professor Bartholomaeus said the difference in values set by the European and US agencies was due to different methodologies and choice of uncertainty factors.

“Both approaches produce guidance values that are protective of public health,” he said.

But Professor Bartholomaeus concluded that the methodology used by Europe for interim standards was more appropriate in the Australian context and in line with the practice of regulatory agencies across the world.

Dr Hobbs said the review was an important contribution to public discussion about PFAS standards, while Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) provides advice to the Department of Health on Australia’s final standard values.

He said Professor Bartholomaeus was a national and international expert in toxicology and chemical regulation, who had chaired and advised World Health Organization expert bodies on these issues.

Professor Bartholomaeus has also held senior toxicology roles with the Australian Government in Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, the Therapeutic Goods Administration and the Office of Chemical Safety.

Professor Bartholomaeus’ report is available on the Department of Health website.

Media contact: Kay McNiece, 0412 132 585

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