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‘Absolutely disgraceful’: Minister blasts West Gate Tunnel builders over job cuts

Transport Infrastructure Minister Jacinta Allan has hit out at Transurban and the builders of the $6.7 billion West Gate Tunnel as more than 200 workers on the troubled toll road project were stood down, with another 400 at risk of losing their jobs in coming months.

Senior industry, union and government sources confirmed to The Age late on Monday that about 100 white-collar staff employed by the project’s builders – CPB Contractors and John Holland – and possibly another 130 subcontractors were being stood down.

PFAS soil stockpiles near Footscray rd in Footscray in March.
PFAS soil stockpiles near Footscray rd in Footscray in March.CREDIT:LUIS ENRIQUE 

The companies had not announced the job losses by Tuesday afternoon, so no official reason has yet been provided.

But sources with detailed knowledge of the project said the cuts were linked to claims by the builders that costs had increased due to the landfill levy associated with the dumping of contaminated soil already dug up and being stockpiled along the West Gate Freeway.

The builders wrote to head project contractor Transurban on March 31, advising the company that if a site was not found to dispose of the project’s soil within the next two weeks, it would cut up to 600 jobs in the next 12 weeks.

Transport Infrastructure Minister Jacinta Allan blasted the project’s builders and Transurban on Tuesday, raising the possibility they were playing a tactical game aimed at extorting the Victorian taxpayer.

“This behaviour that were seeing most recently from these companies and also Transurban is absolutely disgraceful,” she said in a press conference called in the wake of the cuts.

“You do have to question is this a tactical move by Transurban and its builders in an attempt to in some way extort the Victorian government and by extension, the Victorian community to help them sort out this issue.

“This is just unacceptable behaviour.”

The state government wrote to Transurban on April 22, confirming that the soil stockpiled along the freeway had received necessary EPA approvals and that there was sufficient licensed landfill capacity to accept it.

The government has been determined to resist pressure to bail the contractors out over the contamination conundrum. Senior government figures have been scathing behind the scenes about the tactics used by Transurban, CPB and John Holland, with one source accusing the companies of trying to “extort taxpayer money” from the government.

The builders have already used the EPA approvals to remove piles of soil along Footscray Road and the soil stockpiled along the freeway was a very small portion of all the spoil to be unearthed to build the toll road.

Ms Allan said the job losses were unnecessary and were occurring while other businesses were trying to do all they could to keep people employed.

“There is no reason whatsoever for Transurban’s builders, CPB and John Holland, to sack these workers,” Ms Allan said.

“The stockpiles of soil currently on site can be moved immediately – the builder has all the necessary EPA approvals to take this soil to licensed landfill sites.

The job losses come at a difficult time as unemployment surges towards 10 per cent in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and governments seek to bolster job numbers with stimulus spending and borrowing.

“While businesses across Australia are going to extraordinary lengths to keep staff on, Transurban’s builders are proposing to sack up to 600 people because they can’t agree who should pay tip fees – it’s disgraceful,” Ms Allan said.

Ms Allan said the Victorian government would not consider any requests for extra funding to help resolve the crisis. “We are not entertaining those requests.”

With a price tag of $5.5 billion and a promise to reduce congestion, the West Gate Tunnel project is an ambitious one. But does it stack up?

The builders are in a dispute with Transurban, claiming the issue of soil being contaminated with potentially carcinogenic PFAS chemicals amounts to a force majeure event. Transurban is disputing this claim and is reserving its rights to seek damages from the builders over late delivery.

Sources said there were plans to redeploy the 100 workers directly employed on the West Gate Tunnel on other projects or offer them redundancies. The West Gate Tunnel project employs 4000 workers.

Delays and job losses on one of Labor’s signature projects are also a blow to Premier Daniel Andrews’ “can do” reputation and his focus on getting infrastructure built.

Last week, Transurban admitted that the toll road was running late and would not be completed until 2023, instead of 2022.

A Transurban spokeswoman urged the builders to keep the workers employed.

“We are extremely disappointed the CPB-John Holland joint venture is taking these steps when there are options to keep staff employed,” she said.

“While there are challenges on the project, there are plenty of pathways forward to progress works and we urge the CPB-John Holland joint venture to keep these people in a job.

“The CPB-John Holland joint venture has a fixed-price, fixed-time contract to deliver the West Gate Tunnel project including responsibility for all staffing, construction and tunnelling works.”

Source: Royce Millar, Timna Jacks The Age

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Legal threats over West Gate Tunnel soil dump

The $6.7 billion West Gate Tunnel could face a wave of fresh legal battles over plans to dump soil contaminated with PFAS in landfill in Melbourne’s west.

Melbourne’s $6.7 billion West Gate Tunnel project won’t be finished until 2023. JASON SOUTH

Moorabool Shire Council is considering launching legal action that may further delay tunnelling on Transurban’s new toll road, as Bacchus Marsh residents weigh up a separate legal bid to stop PFAS soil getting dumped at the Maddingley Brown Coal landfill site, which is located hundreds of metres from homes and schools.

It comes as Maddingley, shortlisted to accept the project’s 1.2 million cubic metres of soil, lodged an application with Planning Minister Richard Wynne to use special powers to intervene and replace the council as the planning authority.

Moorabool mayor David Edwards said if shire council was shut out of the planning process and the soil was sent to Maddingley, there was little option but to consider legal action.

“Council would explore all legal avenues available to it to ensure that the community remains safe,” he said.

The shire council confirmed on Friday that it would take Maddingley Brown Coal to VCAT over alleged breaches of their permit relating to the landfill’s current operations.

In April, it asked the Andrews government and Transurban to suspend plans to send soil to Maddingley during the COVID-19 pandemic, complaining of a lack of community consultation and technical reports being kept secret.

“You may be able to tell everybody ‘don’t worry, it’s safe’ but if you don’t have that evidence, if you can’t provide that assurance, you’re going to cause a lot of grief and angst in the community and that’s exactly what’s playing out,” Cr Edwards said.

Bacchus Marsh resident Kat Barlow said it was wrong to send the West Gate Tunnel’s soil to Maddingley if the business was already in breach of their permit.

“If they choose Maddingley, we will take legal action,” she warned. “We won’t ever stop the fight because we’re not willing to compromise our safety or our future.” The group had set up a Go Fund Me page asking residents to help support their legal fees.

Soil contamination at the West Gate Tunnel project has halted works and now a contractual dispute over whether the builders will continue.

Other community groups such as the Moorabool Environment Group say they are exploring all possible options to stop the soil being sent to the landfill.

Trucks from the West Gate Tunnel have been transporting soil with low levels of PFAS to Hi-Quality in Bulla in recent weeks. Hi-Quality and Cleanaway in Ravenhall are other landfill sites shortlisted to receive the project’s tunnelling soil.

While these landfills are licensed to take low levels of PFAS, concerned residents want to know exactly how the soil will be dumped to ensure it does not leach out, and how soil with very high levels of PFAS would be managed.

Leaked borehole tests revealed PFAS contamination is up to 2000 times the acceptable amount in drinking water in one hotspot.

Transurban admitted this week the project is running behind schedule and would open in 2023 instead of late 2022 because of delays in managing the project’s contaminated soil.

A government spokeswoman said no planning decision had been made about Maddingley and approvals from EPA Victoria were also required.

“The minister will consider all relevant matters under the planning laws in an appropriate timeframe.”

A West Gate Tunnel project spokeswoman said: “The levels of PFAS in the soil from the tunnel boring are expected to be low and at safe levels for the community and the environment with appropriate controls.”

A Transurban spokeswoman said the EPA would decide how the PFAS soil is disposed of and the project’s builders were working on a “tailored solution for tunnelling that meets all the relevant EPA requirements”.

The spokeswoman said testing showed the levels of PFAS expected to be found during tunnelling are lower than what is considered acceptable by authorities in recreational water.

Source: Timna Jacks The Age

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West Gate Tunnel project a year off track, Transurban tells ASX

Road toll operator Transurban has told investors it expects the West Gate Tunnel project in Melbourne to be delayed by a year.

Transurban says it expects the West Gate Tunnel to be completed by 2023. (ABC News: Graeme Powell)

Key points:

The $6.7 billion West Gate Tunnel project was due to start in July last year and finish by 2022, but was delayed after Transurban, its builders and the State Government could not agree on how to treat and dump contaminated soil.

In an announcement to its investors, Transurban today said it was “committed to working with the State and the D&C subcontractor to resolve the tunnelling issues”.

Victorian Minister for Transport Infrastructure Jacinta Allan said at a press conference on Monday that the 2022 deadline was written into the contract Transurban had with the Government.

“We’ve made it clear we intend to hold Transurban to that contract and what’s contained in that contract is that for every day that this project is not completed beyond 2022, Transurban lose millions of dollars,” Ms Allan said.

She said Transurban would also suffer a loss in revenue in toll charges, and revenues written into the contract with the Government.

A view looking down into a concrete shaft with water and an excavator at the bottom.
Minister for Transport Infrastructure Jacinta Allan said the Government would hold Transurban to its contract, which included a 2022 deadline.(Supplied: West Gate Tunnel Project)

“It is a fixed-price contract and the Government will be holding Transurban to the letter of that contract,” she said.

“The Government’s message to Transurban is really clear; you’ve got to get on, resolve the dispute with the builders, resolve the disposal of the soil from the tunnel boring activities, get those tunnel boring machines going as quickly as possible and honour the commitment and the contract that Transurban has signed.”

She said she was notified last week that Transurban would likely be advising its investors of the delay.

Transurban also told investors it was working through the requirements to “gain necessary planning and environmental approvals” for proposed disposal sites for the contaminated soil.

Opposition transport spokesman David Davis said the Premier and Ms Allan “must be the only people in Victoria who didn’t know the project was in trouble”.

“Daniel Andrews and his incompetent Transport Infrastructure Minister either knew about the time blowout and covered up, or they should have known,” he said.

Sam Hibbins, the Greens’s spokesman on transport issues, said the delay was further proof that it was a bad idea from the start, calling it a “self-serving project designed to benefit Transurban at the expense of Victorian drivers”.

“Given the generous increase and extension of tolling revenue from the State Government, I doubt any costs associated with delaying the project by a year will be of much consequence to Transurban,” he said.

An artist impression of a tunnel to be built at Footscray for the West Gate Tunnel project.
An artist impression of the northern tunnel portal at Footscray, for the West Gate Tunnel Project in Melbourne.(Victorian Government)

In January, the builders of the road project, CPB and John Holland, told Transurban they wanted to terminate their contract to build the West Gate Tunnel, due to the contaminated soil.

CPB and John Holland said at the time that the discovery of contaminated soil constituted a “Force Majeure Termination Event” — a common clause in contracts that frees both parties from liability in the event of an extraordinary circumstance beyond the control of both parties, preventing one of both of them from fulfilling their obligations under the contract.

The CPB and John Holland alliance and Transurban have been at odds as to how to resolve the issue of the contaminated soil, but the State Government says it expects the parties to resolve the matter themselves.

Ms Allan acknowledged the coronavirus pandemic had affected the construction industry around the world and said there had “been some challenges around the removal of soil” but said “the financial cost very clearly sits with Transurban”.

She would not say whether the Government would pursue legal action over the delay.


PFAS technical documents

Federal Court of Australia Settlement Notices

PFAS Investigation & Management Program

Defence is undertaking a national program to review, investigate and implement a comprehensive approach to manage the impacts of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) on, and in the vicinity of, some of its bases around Australia.

From 2004, Defence commenced phasing out its use of legacy firefighting foam containing specific types of PFAS – perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) – as active ingredients. The legacy firefighting foam was used extensively worldwide, and within Australia, from about the 1970s by both civilian and military authorities due to its effectiveness in extinguishing liquid fuel fires. Defence now uses a more environmentally safe product. Furthermore, Defence has made changes to the way it uses firefighting foam to ensure that the risk of releasing the products into the environment is minimised.

Defence is taking a proactive approach to this matter and is working with Commonwealth, state and local authorities in the conduct of its investigations.

Defence is being open and transparent in making the verified test results available to the local community; and is sharing this information with relevant state/territory and local authorities, to assist with planning.

Defence continues to work towards the effective monitoring and management of PFAS contamination on and in the vicinity of affected sites across Australia.

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Federal Court of Australia Settlement Notices

The Federal Court of Australia has issued settlement notices to members of the class actions against the Commonwealth of Australia in Williamtown, Oakey and Katherine. These notices can be downloaded below.


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Incinerators may spread, not break down PFAS

Credit: David Bond/Bennington College
The Norlite hazardous waste incinerator abuts a public housing complex in Cohoes, New York.

Preliminary data show soil and water near New York facility are contaminated

New data suggest that commercial incineration of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) doesn’t break down these hardy chemicals. Instead, it spreads them into surrounding areas.

Soil and surface water near an incinerator in Cohoes, New York, that has burned firefighting foam containing PFAS are tainted with these persistent substances, preliminary data released April 27 by Bennington College show.


In early March, a team of professors and students from the Vermont college traveled about 50 km (31 miles) from their campus to Cohoes, where they collected soil and surface water samples near the incinerator. A commercial laboratory analyzed the samples for the presence of PFAS.

The PFAS found in the samples are the same chemicals that were formerly used in firefighting foams, notably perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), says David Bond, a professor at Bennington College.

The new data suggest that incineration of the PFAS-containing foam at the Cohoes incinerator is not breaking down the persistent chemicals but is “redistributing them into nearby poor and working-class neighborhoods,” Bond says.

“It’s the very definition of foolhardy to try to keep burning these things,” Bond says of PFAS. “By design, they resist thermal degradation.”

The sampling was part of research that the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted, Bond says. Investigators found the early results alarming and significant for public health so they opted to release them before publication. “It’s not ethical to sit on data like that,” Bond adds.

Norlite, a company that makes a ceramic aggregate material, operates the Cohoes incinerator, burning hazardous waste to fire two kilns. Norlite has voluntarily stopped accepting and processing firefighting foam, pending research by the US Environmental Protection Agency, says a statement from Tradebe an environmental services company of which Norlite is a subsidiary. Tradebe points out that Norlite burned the PFAS-containing foam in accordance with permits from the EPA and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

The US military and nearby states have sent PFAS-containing firefighting foam to the Norlite plant. This incinerator is one of several across the US that environmental activists are asking a federal judge to shut down. A federal law enacted in December requires the Department of Defense to ensure that the incinerators it sends its PFAS materials to actually break down these persistent compounds.


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Fire foam grace period

The grace period for phasing out fluorinated firefighting foams in South Australia ended on 30 January, and their use is now prohibited without an exemption.

Fluorinated foams contain PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkalyl substances, which have also been used in a range of everyday domestic products including non-stick cookware, fabric stain protectors, and food packaging.

South Australia was the first state to ban PFAS in firefighting foams, announcing the change on 30 January 2018.

Industry was granted a two-year grace period to help it meet the requirements of the ban.

Seven sites, including large fuel stores and defence facilities, have applied for exemptions for an initial period of three years. Six have been granted, and the seventh is currently being processed.

The transition to fluorine-free firefighting foams can be a complex one at large sites, as they can have kilometres of piping to clean out or replace, and safety must not be compromised during the changeover.

The EPA is satisfied that if the sites are operated and managed in accordance with the conditions of the exemptions, it is unlikely environmental harm could occur.

All operators who were granted exemptions were required to enter into an EIP with agreed milestones to ensure the transition progresses.


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White House Moves to Weaken EPA Rule on Toxic Compounds

WASHINGTON – The Trump White House has intervened to weaken one of the few public health protections pursued by its own administration, a rule to limit the use of a toxic industrial compound in consumer products, according to communications between the White House and Environmental Protection Agency.

The documents show that the White House Office of Management and Budget formally notified the EPA by email last July that it was stepping into the crafting of the rule on the compound, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, used in nonstick and stain-resistant frying pans, rugs, and countless other consumer products.

The White House repeatedly pressed the agency to agree to a major loophole that could allow substantial imports of the PFAS-tainted products to continue, greatly weakening the proposed rule. EPA pushed back on the White House demand for the loophole, known as a “safe harbor” provision for industry.

Pushed again in January, the agency responded, “EPA opposes proposing a safe harbor provision, but is open to a neutrally-worded request for comment from the public” on the White House request.

A ‘national priority’

The rule is one of the few concrete steps that the Trump administration has taken to deal with growing contamination by PFAS industrial compounds. The EPA has declared dating back to 2018 that consumer exposure to the substances was a “national priority” that the agency was confronting “aggressively.”

Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, who obtained the documents revealing the White House intervention, and public-health advocates say the White House action was led by Nancy Beck, a former chemical industry executive now detailed to President Donald Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers.

In a letter sent Friday to the EPA, Carper charged the White House pressure amounts to unusual intervention in what had been the EPA’s in-house efforts to regulate imports tainted with the compound. Trump has nominated Beck to lead the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a government panel charged with protecting Americans from harm by thousands of kinds of consumer goods.

Asked about the White House actions, EPA spokeswoman Corry Schiermeyer said in an email that “consulting with other federal agencies on actions is a normal process across government,” and that “EPA is often required to engage in an interagency review process led by OMB.”

“It is routine for the agency to receive input from all of our stakeholders, including our federal partners,” Schiermeyer wrote.

The EPA did not respond to a question about whether Beck led the White House intervention. Emails sent for comment to the White House, the White House Office of Management and Budget and Beck were not immediately answered.

Carper obtained pages of back-and-forth proposed changes, redline drafts and other communications between the White House Office of Management and Budget, the EPA and others on the draft rule. No authors are listed in many of the final rounds of White House edits, drafts and proposals and EPA’s responses.

Carper wrote to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Friday to object to the White House push for weakening of the rule, newly revealed in the documents. Carper said it appeared that Beck, who was moved to the White House from a top regulatory job at the Trump EPA, “sought to make it more difficult for EPA to use its authority … to protect Americans from these harmful substances.”

Raising the technical bar

While thousands of kinds of PFAS compounds are still in use in the United States, the new EPA rule would set up agency oversight of imports of products that use a few kinds of the compounds that manufacturers agreed to phase out in this country starting in 2006. Those versions remain in production in some parts of the world.

In addition to the safe harbor loophole, another change sought by the White House would raise the technical bar for EPA to consider blocking any of the tainted products.

The agency agreed to rewrite the rule to include a third White House request, narrowing the range of imported products that would fall under the rule.

The official public comment period for the current form of the rule ends Friday, moving the proposal close to crafting of its final form. Congress, impatient for the Trump administration to start bringing the PFAS compounds under federal regulation, has ordered the administration to get a final rule out by mid-summer.

Even if the rule goes out in its current form, applying to fewer kinds of product imports, “it would certainly be better than where we are without it,” although “scaled back significantly from what it was originally,” said Richard Denison, lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund advocacy group, and a longtime monitor of the EPA’s regulation of toxic substances.

But if the final rule includes the other two key changes being pushed by the White House “it could even do more damage than good,” Denison said.

Industries also would be likely to push for those two exceptions in regulations of future substances, Denison said. “Those two provisions would establish precedence that the EPA has never used for 40 years.”

Array of health problems

Industries produce thousands of versions of the man-made compounds. They are used in countless products, including nonstick cookware, water-repellent sports gear, cosmetics, and grease-resistant food packaging, along with firefighting foams.

Public health studies on exposed populations have associated them with an array of health problems, including some cancers, and weakened immunity. The advent of widespread testing for the contaminant over the past few years found it in high levels in many public water systems around the country. The administration initially sought in 2018 to suppress a federal toxicology warning on the danger of the compounds, then publicly vowed action.


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More than 40,000 residents in class action against Defence over toxic chemical exposure

More than 40,000 people are expected to take part in a class action against the Department of Defence over the military’s use of PFAS. Photo: Getty

More than 40,000 people are expected to take part in a class action against the Department of Defence over the military’s use of PFAS. 

Australia’s largest class action yet is expected to be filed on Thursday in a major legal battle against the Department of Defence over allegations families have been exposed to a toxic firefighting chemical.

Residents of Wagga Wagga and Richmond in NSW, Wodonga in Victoria, Darwin in the Northern Territory and Townsville in Queensland, Edinburgh in South Australia and Bullsbrook in Western Australia allege their land and water have been contaminated by PFAS chemicals used by the military.

Shine Lawyers said it will file the class action, which seeks compensation for residents who have experienced significant drops in property prices, in the Federal Court in NSW on Thursday.

More than 40,000 people who live and work on contaminated land are expected to join forces to sue the government.

Lead applicant Reannan Haswell said she moved to Bullsbrook, north-east of Perth, 10 years ago with her partner Beaux Tilley.

They now hold serious concerns about their family’s safety.

Reannan Haswell (second from left) and Beaux Tilley with environmental activist Erin Brokovich in 2019.

Mr Tilley said they were afraid to let their children drink or bathe from their water supply.

“We’re trapped on property with little or no value as a result of our exposure to PFAS,” he said.

Shine Lawyers’ Special Counsel Joshua Aylward said every aspect of the residents’ lives had been impacted by the contamination. In some cases, land values had decreased by more than 50 per cent.

“These toxins are permeating the environment around them, with high levels found in rivers and creeks, livestock, crops, drinking water, and in people’s blood,” he said.

“Property prices are plummeting as a result of this contamination.”

Mr Aylward said residents were exposed to PFAS by the government’s negligence and the class action was holding it to account for failing them.

Source: Department of Defence

Residents affected by the contamination are automatically involved in the action unless they choose to opt out.

In February, Shine Lawyers reached an in-principle agreement with the Department of Defence over PFAS contamination that affected residents in Oakey in Queensland and Katherine in the Northern Territory.



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Dark Waters’ pollution threat isn’t Hollywood hysteria – it could be a ticking timebomb worldwide

If you live in the US or Australia, you’re likely to know about PFAS (or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances). But in the UK, few people have heard of them, despite one scientist I know describing the presence of these pollutants in UK groundwater as “a ticking timebomb”.

Dark Waters, directed by Todd Haynes and starring Mark Ruffalo, has helped popularise the story of PFAS pollution in the US. It focuses on true events in the US town of Parkersburg, West Virginia, where a local factory began making Teflon in the 1950s. Despite the industry allegedly knowing the risks of these compounds, over 1.7 million pounds of PFOA – a particular type of PFAS – were emitted to the environment between 1951 and 2003.

Research suggests that the safety threshold for PFOA in drinking water may be as low as 0.1 parts per trillion. That’s 700 times lower than the safe level that has been cited by the Environmental Protection Agency in the US. Since 1951, over 50,000 Parkersburg residents have been affected by PFAO contamination in their drinking water.

It wasn’t an incompetent small-time outfit that was implicated in the scandal, but the multinational DuPont. The case rolled on through the 1990s and early 2000s, ultimately resulting in a class action lawsuit worth several hundred million dollars. But the toxic influence of PFAS stretches beyond Parkersburg and DuPont. Today, the whole planet is contaminated with them.

For much of my career, I’ve worked as an environmental forensic investigator, identifying sources of pollution and measuring the exposure to humans and wildlife. As scientists, we’re normally reserved in our choice of words, but PFAS could be described as one of the most dangerous groups of pollutants in the world today.

Dream additive, nightmare pollutant

PFAS are a group of synthetic organic chemicals that consist of multiple fluorine atoms attached to a carbon backbone. They are incredibly useful compounds with great waterproofing properties. They’re added to coats and coffee cups to stop liquids leaking in or out. They’re also used in food packaging to stop grease seeping through and frying pans to help make washing up easier. PFAS can also form effective foams which are used by firefighters to combat some of the most extreme fires, such as on oil rigs and in airports. So what’s the problem?

Well, for one, PFAS are highly toxic. They persist in the environment and accumulate in animal tissue so effectively that they’ve been nicknamed “forever chemicals”. PFAS exposure has been linked to several different diseases, including testicular and kidney cancer. They are also soluble in water, which means that they can travel much faster through the environment than other persistent organic pollutants such as PCBs and dioxins.

Read more: The Conversation: special preview film screening of Dark Waters followed by exclusive environmental Q&A

PFAS have been used for decades, and their levels in the environment are increasing. It’s only recently that we discovered that they are even present in remote Arctic regions, where there is no known local source. While research has helped establish contamination levels in the US and Australia, much less is known about the UK, where PFAS have been widely used for decades. They must be accumulating in the environment somewhere.

PFAS are used in food packaging – including takeaway pizza boxes. Maxx-Studio/Shutterstock

Understanding the scale of the issue is one thing, and was an important first step in adding the PFAS compounds PFOS and PFOA to the Stockholm Convention, an international treaty focused on eliminating persistent organic pollutants, in 2009 and 2019 respectively.

The manufacture of these two chemicals is now being phased out, but other PFAS compounds are being used in their places. These are still likely to be toxic and persistent and to accumulate in ecosystems. A recent study estimated that there are over 4,700 different PFAS compounds in the world today. Rather than having high concentrations of a small number of PFAS, there is a high total concentration of a wide number of PFAS. The problem hasn’t gone away, it has just got more complicated.

How we uncover the truth

In forensic investigations of pollution, scientists have to identify who is responsible. The case depicted in Dark Waters was pretty clear cut, but there are so many different potential sources of PFAS, as they have been used widely for decades in many different products. This can make identifying one source of PFAS from another difficult.

I research new techniques for measuring pollutants in the environment that can differentiate between sources. One technique, called chemical fingerprinting, can identify sources of pollution by comparing the chemical composition of a suspected source material to the chemical signature found at the pollution site. This is similar to traditional forensic fingerprinting, where police compare a suspect’s fingerprints to those found at a crime scene. These signatures can change over time as the chemicals are degraded and altered in the environment, but we have developed methods to cope with this.

Forensic investigators can now match pollution to its source in a similar fashion to detectives matching culprits to their fingerprints at a crime scene. Viicha/Shutterstock

Scientists are often hired as expert witnesses and called to court to present evidence and explain who is responsible for a pollution incident. While we might get paid by a company we are defending, our duty is to provide a balanced assessment of the evidence to the court. This is the only way that those who have been affected by environmental pollution can obtain some kind of justice.

Dark Waters might increase public awareness of PFAS in the UK and other countries when it launches on February 28, but could it drive research to uncover environmental contamination? Scientists have all the tools at their disposal to undertake this task. It is just a matter of funding and public support.


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We should be cautious, but not concerned: there’s little evidence PFAS exposure harms our health

Per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) are persistent organic pollutants found most commonly in firefighting foam.

Every now and again, concerns around the possible health effects of exposure to PFAS pop up in the news. These chemicals don’t readily break down, and can accumulate in the environment.

PFAS contamination of water and fish was recently reported in Mackay and Darwin Harbour. Even my local free weekly paper in Adelaide had “PFAS food fright” plastered across the front page not long ago, arising from groundwater contamination near the local fire station.

Yes, PFAS might have been picked up in a few new places. But the latest evidence suggests the levels at which we’re exposed are very unlikely to affect our health.

Read more: The chemicals in firefighting foam aren’t the new asbestos

What are PFAS?

PFAS (also known as perfluoroalkyl acids, or PFAAs) are long chains of carbon atoms studded with fluorine molecules. They include compounds such as perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS).

PFAS are inert, water repellent and heat resistant. This makes them ideal for applications ranging from stain-resistant fabrics, to non-stick cookware, to firefighting foams.

Their chemical properties mean they’re very resistant to breakdown and persist in the environment for many years. Even though these PFAS started to be phased out in 2000, they still linger in some places where firefighting foams were used extensively, such as fire stations and airports.

The chemical structure of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOA), a typical PFAS. Ian Musgrave

Where do PFAS come from?

In an Australian context, the most important sources of PFAS originate in their use for firefighting. The firefighting foam enters the soil around the site where a fire has occurred, or gets into storm-water drains. From there, it ends up in either the groundwater or streams, and ultimately the ocean.

Drinking water is not a major source of PFAS in Australia, as we typically don’t use groundwater for drinking. But in some places, groundwater contaminated with PFAS is used to irrigate food plants, and can enter the food chain through plants retaining PFAS from the water. This is the basis of the headline in my local paper, as many local residents use bore water for their fruit and vegetable gardens.

Read more: Companies should take charge of the potential toxins in common products

In a food chain, small amounts of PFAS can be concentrated as you move up the chain from plants to insects to fish. That is, insects may feed on affected plants, and fish may eat affected insects. So fish in rivers or bays contaminated with PFAS runoff can be a substantial source of PFAS. This is the issue in Mackay and Darwin.

Notably, the exposure people might face from eating affected fish or crops is below the levels people exposed to PFAS in an industrial sense, like firefighters, would encounter.

PFAS and health: the experts respond

PFAS take a long time to break down in organisms. For example, in humans, it takes around five years for half an ingested dose of PFOA to pass through the system.

The build-up of a chemical that’s hard to remove from our bodies is always of concern. I wrote in an earlier article in 2017 that despite this, the potential health risks appeared to be low.

Since then, the Australian Expert Health Panel for PFAS looked in detail at the evidence, publishing its findings last year.

If anything, there appears to be even less risk from PFAS than we thought.

How do we study these potential health effects?

We can do studies on animals; these are indicative but can be misleading. For example, the effects of PFAS on what’s called peroxisome proliferation receptors that regulate fats have been measured in rodents.

The effects occur at concentrations typically 1,000 times higher than average human blood concentrations, and around 100 times the blood concentrations in contaminated workers. The human system is less sensitive than the mouse system, so mouse and rat studies may overestimate toxicity to humans.

We can do longitudinal studies where we follow PFAS exposure and health outcomes in humans over time. But a lack of good exposure monitoring and the difficulty in accounting for other environmental influences makes it hard to reach clear conclusions.

Studies of industrial workers exposed to high environmental levels of PFAS give an idea of what exposure to high levels can do, but are less helpful for low levels.

But synthesising all this data, as done by the expert panel, helps overcome these limitations.

Read more: How microplastics make their way up the ocean food chain into fish

The most pressing concern on people’s minds is cancer, but there’s no consistent evidence PFAS is associated with cancer. One study even found exposure to PFOA decreased the incidence of bowel cancer.

The expert health panel report concluded “there is no current evidence that suggests an increase in overall cancer risk”.

The other major concern is heart disease risk. But studies of people who have been chronically exposed to significant levels of PFOA have not shown statistically significant increases in heart disease.

Similarly, no consistent findings have linked PFAS to any other health concerns previously expressed, which have included reduced kidney function, altered immune response, and earlier menopause.

In Australia, the most common source of PFAS is firefighting foam. From

What’s the take home message?

The panel concluded there is mostly limited or no evidence for PFAS having any link with human disease.

Though they noted even though the evidence for PFAS exposure and links to health effects is very weak and inconsistent, health effects for people exposed to PFAS cannot be ruled out based on the current evidence.

But the take home message is don’t panic. Most people will be getting less than the tolerable daily intake of these chemicals from their food and water (that is, below a threshold that would cause any potential adverse health effects).

To err on the side of caution, it’s sensible to minimise exposure by not consuming fish from affected areas or limiting bore water use for irrigating suburban gardens near contamination sites.