National guidelines around a potentially toxic firefighting foam should include evidence it could cause adverse health effects, say the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, amid concerns the current health advice is “confusing”. PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of chemicals historically used in firefighting foams by both civilian and Defence Force firefighters around Australia. The effects of the chemicals on human health and the environment are being investigated by Australian and international authorities. Currently, the Federal Department of Health’s advice is that “there is no consistent evidence that PFAS cause any specific illnesses, including cancer”. In its submission to the Government’s expert health panel on PFAS, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians said that line was “likely to be confusing for the public” and backed calls for the advice to be updated. “It weakens approaches that apply the precautionary principle when advising the public about food and water consumption at sites potentially contaminated with PFAS,” it said. “We strongly advocate for change to the national health advice that incorporates the latest complete body of evidence for adverse human health effects.” That latest international evidence includes information from Germany, England and the United States that PFAS contamination had been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, infertility issues and lower response rates to vaccines in children. PFAS chemicals are used in a number of sub categories, but the focus in Australia is on perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluoro-octanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS).
PFAS Guidance overseas:
- Germany: health effects are “well proven, relevant, and significantly associated with exposure to PFOA and/or PFOS”
- England: “prolonged exposure may cause cancer” but not thought to pose a risk to humans given concentration in environment
- United States: epidemiological studies have indicated “that exposure to PFOA and PFOS over certain levels may result in adverse health effects”
The College has called on the Government to remove inconsistencies between Queensland and Commonwealth laws and legislate a national ban on all firefighting foams containing PFAS. It also wants the Government to ratify the 2009 Stockholm Convention listing of PFOS and consider a “swifter ratification of the PFOA listing 2019”. A spokeswoman for the Federal Department of Health said while there was “uncertainty” around the chemicals potential to cause adverse human health effects, PFOS and PFOA would remain in the environment and in humans for many years. “More research is required before definitive statements can be made on causality or risk,” the department said in a statement. “The Department of Health will continue to monitor the evidence and revise its assessment of the evidence should the need arise.” It said the expert health panel’s advice was being finalised and would then be passed on to Health Minister Greg Hunt.
ABC News, 20 March 2018 ; http://www.abc.net.au/news/