Defence is undertaking investigations associated with legacy Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) containing per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS); including perfluorinated sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
AFFF has been used extensively worldwide, including in Australia, since the 1970s by both civilian and military authorities to extinguish liquid fuel fires. AFFF acts quickly by smothering fuel when a thin film of foam forms on the fuel, stopping contact with oxygen. Immediate life and safety concerns need to be met in cases of emergency as liquid fuel fires are dangerous. AFFF has been and still is, considered to be the most effective way to reduce this danger.
Historically, AFFF contained PFAS including PFOS and PFOA however as information emerged that PFOS and PFOA could have environmental impacts, Defence switched to using a more environmentally safer product. The historical use of AFFF across the Defence estate has resulted in PFAS contamination, with preliminary investigations at certain Defence sites showing that surrounding off-site areas have also been impacted.
Defence has undertaken a range of actions to better understand the potential impacts of historical AFFF use. This has included: conducting an internal review to establish the practices during which AFFF had been used on the Defence estate; commissioning trials of alternative AFFF products; the acquisition of a more environmentally safer product; changes to management and use of AFFF; and finally, incorporating PFOS/PFOA into routine environmental monitoring following implementation of effective laboratory capability to analyse these chemicals.
As well as firefighting foams, PFAS have had many uses in common household and industrial applications. These include stain resistant applications for furniture and carpets, fast food or packaged food containers, make up, personal care products and cleaning products. Most people in developed countries are likely to have levels of PFOS, PFHxS and PFOA in their blood due to widespread use. There is currently no consistent evidence that exposure to PFAS causes adverse human health effects.
Defence became aware that PFAS was an emerging persistent organic pollutant in 2003 and released policy in 2004 to cease the use of AFFF containing PFAS for training purposes, and implemented a number of activities, such as:
- commencing the phase out of legacy AFFF product,
- changing the operational AFFF product used by Defence to a more environmentally safe product that does not contain PFOS/PFOA as active ingredients; and
- changing the way that Defence uses AFFF to ensure that the risk of releasing AFFF into the environment is minimized.
In 2010 Defence commenced detailed investigations into contamination associated with PFAS. In 2016 the Australian Government committed $55 million from the existing Defence budget to manage, contain and remediate PFAS on, and in the vicinity of, Defence properties. This saw the establishment of a Branch dedicated to the National Investigation and Management of PFAS.
The PFAS Investigation and Management program is part of a broader Whole-of-Government approach. The policy environment relating to PFAS is complex and dynamic. At times, issues need to be coordinated across a number of jurisdictions and Defence continues to work with other Commonwealth and/or State/Territory Governments, along with local authorities.
In order to oversee the Whole-of-Government response to address PFAS contamination at Commonwealth-owned sites and the impact on affected communities, the Australian Government has established a PFAS Taskforce within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Defence will continue to monitor the Australian and international industry to ensure it remains up to date on PFAS management and remediation technologies. Defence has undertaken a number of trials over the past 12 months and continues to progress those which have demonstrated potential for full scale implementation.