Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances

Per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a class of manufactured chemicals that have been used since the 1950s to make products that resist heat, stains, grease and water.

PFAS have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries around the globe. Products that may contain PFAS include furniture and carpets treated for stain resistance, foams used for firefighting, fast food or packaged food containers, make up and personal care products and cleaning products. 

PFASs are of concern because they are not broken down in the environment and so can persist for a long time. Their widespread use and persistence means that many types of PFAS may be present, mostly at very low levels, in our environment.

Australia and other countries have taken action to phase out the use of these materials in products and a general trend towards lower PFAS levels in people’s blood has been observed.

The PFASs of most concern are perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS) is another chemical of the PFAS group and is present in some fire-fighting foams for which an Australian health reference value has been set.

Health impacts from exposure to PFOS and PFOA

The Federal Minister for Health formed an Expert Health Panel (external link) in 2018 to review the scientific evidence for PFAS.  The panel found that although evidence in humans is limited, reviews and scientific research to date have provided fairly consistent reports of an association with the following health effects:

  • increased levels of cholesterol in the blood;
  • increased levels of uric acid in the blood;
  • reduced kidney function;
  • alterations in some indicators of immune function;
  • altered levels of thyroid hormones and sex hormones;
  • later age for starting menstruation (periods) in girls, and earlier menopause; and
  • lower birth weight in babies.

The changes reported in these associations are generally small and within normal ranges for the whole population. 

The panel concluded that there is mostly limited or no evidence of a link to human disease or other clinically significant harm resulting from PFAS exposure at this time.

Associations means that a relationship between PFAS exposure and the above health effects is observed; however, this does not necessarily mean that the PFAS has caused the effect.  A causative relationship between the above health effects and PFAS exposure has not been established.

Some people who live or work in areas that have been contaminated with PFAS, might have been exposed to higher levels of PFAS through food or drinking water. They are advised to minimise their exposure until there is more known about possible impacts on health.

Human exposure pathways

Outside of the occupational setting, exposure to PFASs can occur from the air, indoor dust, food, water and various consumer products. For most people, food is expected to be the primary source of exposure to these chemicals. Human breast milk may contribute to exposure in infants since some PFASs have been detected in human breast milk.

Ingestion of food and drinking water contaminated with PFAS are the major human exposure pathways. Inhalation of dust contaminated with PFAS and dermal (skin) contact with PFAS are considered to be minor exposure pathways.

For some communities near facilities where PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS have been extensively used, higher levels may be found in the surrounding environment and exposure may occur through other means, including drinking water supplied from groundwater. Determination of exposure is best achieved through a full human health risk assessment that examines all routes of exposure. Information on PFAS investigations in Western Australia is available from the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (external site).

Reference values for PFOS and PFOA

Reference values are used by scientists to determine the acceptance level of chemicals or substances. One way to express these values is through a Tolerable Daily Intake, often referred to as a (TDI). 

The TDI’s for PFAS are important for evaluating the exposure in communities around sites with contaminated drinking water and food. 

On 3 April 2017, the Australian Government Department of Health published final health based guidance values (external site) for use in site investigations across Australia for PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS.

Advice for pregnant and breastfeeding women

PFAS has not been found to be a major contributor to poor health outcomes in pregnant women or their babies.  As a precaution, pregnant women should minimise their exposure to PFAS and other chemicals.

Breastfeeding has significant health benefits for infants. These benefits far outweigh any potential health risks from transfer of low levels of PFAS to infants through breast milk. Mothers living in PFAS-contaminated areas should continue to breastfeed.

Blood tests

Because we do not yet know whether PFAS causes adverse health effects, blood tests measuring levels of PFAS tests cannot say whether a person will become sick as a result of the PFAS in their body, or whether a current medical condition is the result of PFAS exposure.

Blood tests that have been conducted on groups of people in the PFAS Investigation Areas surrounding Williamtown, Oakey and Katherine are being used by the Australian National University to conduct an Epidemiological Study into the potential health effects of PFAS exposure, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2020.

For further information please visit:

Australian Government (external link) - this site offers links to state and territory government advice on managing PFAS exposure, as well as information on national PFAS investigation and management programs.

Australian Department of Health (external link)

Department of Defence (external link)

Air Services Australia (external link)