Health

Based on current information, the advice of health officials is that there is no acute health risk to people in the areas, but in specific instances more detailed local advice may be required.

Currently there is no consistent evidence that environmental exposures at the low levels New Zealanders are generally exposed to will cause harmful health effects. The long-term accumulation of these chemicals in the body has prompted concerns about possible health effects.  Long-term the best way to avoid exposure to PFOS and PFOA is to limit their use in New Zealand.  

The Ministry of Health is working closely with the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) and the Ministry for the Environment to provide appropriate advice and support for actions planned by those agencies.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) has conducted tests for PFOS and PFOA on milk produced from dairy farms neighbouring the Ohakea air base and none were detected above the laboratory’s reporting limits.

Three of the tests had PFAS detections at extremely low levels. These levels were so low that the laboratory would not in the normal course of events report them at all. These levels pose no food safety risk. To put it in context – an 82kg adult would have to drink, per day, every day, over their entire lifetime, more than 15 litres of milk containing PFOS or more than 100 litres of milk containing PFOA at the laboratory’s reporting limits, to exceed health-based guidance values.

Milk is a useful sign post to see if any contamination of productive land had occurred. These results mean there is highly unlikely to be a risk of PFAS transferring into wine grapes grown near Woodbourne base, or home grown fruit and vegetables in the regions around both sites. MPI will test other food types, as required if the results from ground water monitoring testing suggest any risk of food contamination.

The Ministry of Health has accepted the Australian drinking-water quality values for PFOS and PFOA as interim guidance levels – as neither New Zealand, nor the World Health Organisation currently have set maximum acceptable values for these chemicals in drinking-water. These interim guidance levels will be reviewed as part of a wider review of Drinking-Water Standards, being undertaken as one of the actions arising from the Inquiry into the Havelock North Water Contamination Event.

Questions and answers

What are interim guidance levels for drinking water? 

The interim guidance levels for PFOS and PFOA in drinking water were derived from effects found at certain doses in animal studies. The calculation of the guidance levels included appropriate uncertainty factors to take account of issues like differences between humans and animals. The guidance levels are based on a person weighing 70 kg drinking 2 litres of water every day over a lifetime without any significant risk to health. Although there is no consistent evidence that the effects in animals also occur in humans, the Ministry of Health recommends that an alternative drinking water source is used to protect health if the interim guidance levels are exceeded.

PFOS and/or PFOA was found in my water supply. What does this mean? 

The interim guidance drinking-water levels are based on a person weighing 70 kg drinking 2 litres of water every day over a lifetime without any significant risk to health. Although there is no consistent evidence that the effects in animals also occur in humans, the Ministry of Health recommends that an alternative drinking water source is used to protect health if the interim guidance levels are exceeded. In addition, because the levels being analysed are ultra-trace amounts, and because there is uncertainty in the analysis and seasonal variation in the contamination levels, the Ministry of Health recommends that an alternative drinking water source is used to protect health, until sufficient sampling has been undertaken to establish that the PFAS concentration does not exceed the interim guidance level.

Is an alternative water supply available to affected people?

Bottled water is available to households in the affected areas whose drinking water source is a bore until such time that the bore water is known to meet the Ministry of Health's interim drinking-water guideline values for PFOS and PFOA. This approach is a precautionary health measure and not based on a known health risk.

If PFOS and PFOA compounds are suspected in the water I am drinking what should I do?

While you are waiting for test results for drinking water sourced from bores in the area identified by NZDF as potentially affected, as a precaution use the bottled water that has been made available.  This advice applies to water used for drinking, food preparation, cooking, brushing teeth or any activity that results in ingestion of water.

What is the risk from eating food from the affected properties?

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) considers there is no risk to the national food supply. MPI has conducted tests for PFOS and PFOA on milk produced from dairy farms neighbouring the Ohakea base and none of these revealed any food safety concerns. In addition, the commercial processing of any food is such that no individual would be exposed to enough potentially affected product to cause an issue.

MPI will be talking to people on affected properties. For those who produce and consume the majority of their food from their properties we will provide advice on a precautionary approach to moderate any exposure. 

Is there any risk to the welfare of the animals on affected properties? 

We’ve not seen any evidence of risk to animals as a result of this kind of exposure. In other countries where PFAS contamination has come to light, animal welfare issues have not been a concern. 

What is the risk to wine grown in the affected areas?

MPI considers potential uptake of PFAS into grapes is unlikely. However, we will review the groundwater findings in depth to identify if testing grapes or wine from this season’s harvest will add value to the interpretation of the Woodbourne results.

Many of the groundwater bores around Woodborne likely irrigate vineyards. The recent Australian monitoring around RAAF Oakey reported that no PFAS was detected in any fruits from the affected areas.

Is it safe to swim and shower in potentially affected water?

Yes. The risks to health come from the ingestion of PFOS and PFOA compounds. Any water ingested in any activities not listed above would be minimal.

What health support will be provided if the results show levels of PFOS and PFOA above guidelines in the water? 

The form of health support will depend on what the tests results show. If residents are concerned about their health now, they should seek advice from their GP. Residents in the affected area will also be able to talk with their local Medical Officer of Health. 

What is meant by “no acute health risk”?

No acute health risk means that exposure to PFOS and/or PFOA will not pose any significant health effects today. Our approach is a pre-cautionary one because we know these compounds accumulate in the body but we don’t fully understand the effects this could have on human health in the long-term; therefore limiting any further exposure is the best course of action for reducing any long-term health risk.

Are there any health effects linked to PFOS and PFOA compounds in humans?

The potential effects of exposure to PFOS and PFOA to human health continue to be studied. These studies involve laboratory animal studies, as well as occupationally exposed workers, residents in communities with higher exposure and studies of the general population in the USA and other countries.

Adverse health effects have been demonstrated in animals exposed to much higher levels of PFOS and PFOA than are known to occur in people. Changes in the liver, thyroid, and pancreatic function, and some changes in hormone levels have been reported.  However, the results of these animal studies and their relevance to humans are not always clear. 

Potential adverse health effects in humans cannot be excluded but further research is needed to understand whether the adverse effects seen in animals have any implications for human health. 

Researchers have studied people who were occupationally exposed to relatively high levels of PFAS and communities exposed to PFOS, including through drinking water, for 50 years from a US manufacturing plant. Studies have looked for effects on cholesterol levels, male hormones, heart disease, liver changes, cancer risk and other effects.

These studies have not consistently shown that PFAS exposure is linked to adverse health effects. However, many of these studies reportedly have significant methodological issues that limit the conclusions that can be drawn from their findings.

How can I be exposed to PFOS and PFOA compounds?

PFOS and PFOA are found in the blood of people and animals all over the world and are present at low levels in a variety of food products and in the environment (air, water, soil, etc.). Therefore, completely preventing exposure to PFOS and PFOA is unlikely, and no effective recommendations can be made for reducing individual exposures in the general population.

A variety of consumer products such as surface-protective coatings on clothing, carpets, and paper packaging have contained different types of PFAS in the past. Recent efforts to remove PFAS in many of these products have reduced the likelihood of PFOS and PFOA exposure. In addition, research has suggested that exposure from consumer products is usually low. 

Could my existing health problems be caused by PFOS and PFOA exposure?

If you are unwell for any reason see your doctor.

Are there future health problems which may occur because of PFOS and PFOA exposure?

There is no conclusive evidence that PFOS and PFOA exposure will result in future health problems.  The evidence of health effects is not clear, and some effects may not be clinically significant. Talk to Healthline on 0800 611 116 about your concerns.

Should I get my blood tested? Will affected residents be given free blood tests or other support?

Tests for measuring levels in people are not routinely available. Individual blood testing is not recommended. The results only indicate if you have been exposed to PFOS and PFOA, but everyone will have had some exposure.  It cannot tell you if you will develop health effects because of the exposure.

Repeat serum PFAS tests are not recommended as PFAS in the body decreases slowly over years if significant exposure to PFAS ceases. In addition, as PFAS is widely used and persistent in the environment, you will still have other exposures even after you have stopped drinking water with PFAS above the interim guidance level. The interim guideline for drinking water is conservative as it does anticipate that there are other sources of PFAS in our diet. Studies suggest that the half-life (the time it takes for the amount to be reduced by half) of PFAS could be as long as nine years, so repeating your serum PFAS test after a year or two would not show whether your levels are decreasing.

How will exposure to PFOS and PFOA compounds affect my pregnancy?

There is no consistent evidence of effects in pregnancy. For specific advice talk to your doctor.

Should I continue to breastfeed? 

Yes. While some PFOS and PFOA compounds have been detected in breast milk overseas, the proven health benefits associated with breastfeeding outweigh any potential health risk to an infant from the transfer of PFOS and PFOA compounds through breast milk.  For specific advice talk to your doctor.

How long does it take for PFOS and PFOA to leave my system? 

In humans, studies suggest that the half-life (the time it takes for the amount to be reduced by half) of PFOS and PFOA compounds could range from two to nine years. The time it takes for PFOS and PFOA compounds to be excreted from the body is the same for adults and children.

The advice about health risks from PFOS and PFOA exposure is very uncertain.  How do I deal with this?

Keep yourself informed and use the resources offered.  If you have questions contact Healthline on 0800 611 116.

What about the health of NZDF staff who have had direct contact with PFOS/PFOA foam?

Direct exposure through skin contact carries low risk to human health. Additionally, staff wear protective clothing during training exercises, further limiting their exposure to PFOS or PFOA. The greatest risk to human health from PFOS and PFOA is from ingesting contaminated food and drink. Therefore staff on the affected sites are considered to be at the same level of risk as residents.

Are there health risks to firefighters?

We believe the risk of harmful effects to firefighters is low, as 95 percent of foam historically used by Fire and Emergency NZ does not contain PFOS or PFOA. In terms of historic use of foam containing PFOS or PFOA, health officials advise the greatest risk they present to human health is from ingesting contaminated food and drink. Direct exposure through skin contact carries low risk to human health.

Safety of people - both the community and firefighters – is Fire and Emergency NZ’s number one priority. Fire and Emergency NZ will be working closely with its people, stakeholders and government partners to monitor progress on investigations into the potential effects of PFOS and PFOA, and offers assistance if any of its people are concerned.

How will I know if the advice changes?

Government agencies will continue to assess the situation, undertake comprehensive health risk assessments and testing of water to update this advice. 

What standards is the government applying?

The World Health Organization, which issues guidance on the levels of chemicals in drinking-water, has not provided advice on levels of PFAS in drinking-water. There is, therefore, no maximum acceptable value for PFOS or PFOA in the current drinking-water Standards for New Zealand.

There is information on the Australian Department of Health website about their health based guidance for PFAS http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/content/ohp-pfas-hbgv.htm#independent and information about the process used here: http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/content/2200FE086D480353CA2580C900817CDC/$File/summary-enHealth-interim.pdf

The New Zealand Ministry of Health has accepted the Australian guidance as a provisional guideline level for New Zealand. This will be included in the broader review of the Drinking-Water Standards for New Zealand (being undertaken as part of the actions arising from the Inquiry into the Havelock North Water Contamination Event).

In April 2017, the Australian Department of Health issued health based drinking guidance values for use in site investigations.

Should I continue to use my home fire extinguisher?

Yes.  

Reviewed:
07/05/18