PFAS - Frequently Asked Questions

What is PFAS?

PFAS is an acronym for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, and are a large group of manufactured compounds that have industrial and consumer applications, being resistant to heat, water, and oil. There are more than 4,000 such substances, grouped in various subclasses. Click here to find out more.

 

What has caused the contamination in New Zealand?

Because PFAS compounds have been used so widely in consumer and industrial applications, they can end up in the environment from a number of potential sources.

The most studied sites in NZ have been airfields and fire training sites where specialist firefighting foams have been sprayed onto the ground during incidents and exercises. Some specialised firefighting foams are designed to fight fires involving highly volatile liquid fuels (e.g. aviation fuel or petrol) and these historically contained PFOS and PFOA as a surfactant to help the foam spread across the surface of the burning fuel.

PFAS compounds are also commonly used in cosmetics, non-stick cookware, grease-proof paper, waterproof and stain resistant fabrics and fabric coatings, carpet and furniture protectants, waxes, polishes, cleaning products and electronic devices. These eventually end up in our landfills and wastewater, before ending up in the environment. A summary of non-foam sources of PFAS in New Zealand can be found here.

 

What has been done to reduce the impact of PFAS on human health and the environment?

Two PFAS chemicals perfluorooctane sulphonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) are effectively banned in New Zealand, These were excluded from the Firefighting Chemicals Group Standard in 2006, effectively banning their import, manufacture and use in firefighting foams.

In 2011 the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, which New Zealand is a party to, was adopted and put into effect by the United Nations Environment Programme. PFOS was listed as a persistent organic pollutant (POP) under the Convention in 2009, with effect from August 2010. As a result, amendments were made to the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (the HSNO Act) in August 2011, prohibiting the import, use and manufacture of PFOS in New Zealand, other than for specified, identified uses, such as laboratory analysis.

PFOA does not have approval to be imported or manufactured as a stand-alone chemical compound. However there are no other restrictions on the use of PFOA as a component of substances or manufactured articles under the HSNO Act. PFOA is currently being assessed by the Stockholm Convention POP Review Committee, on which New Zealand has a member, and is likely to be listed as a POP in 2019. This would likely lead to a prohibition in New Zealand in 2020, restricting all uses of PFOA, as is currently the case with PFOS.

A third type of PFAS chemicals, PFHxS, is also being assessed by the Stockholm Convention POP Review Committee. Work is underway to better understand the impacts of PFAS on human health and the environment. Relevant information will be available here as and when it is available.

 

Who monitors compliance with any restrictions around PFAS?

District and Regional Councils have regulatory responsibilities for PFAS in drinking water and the environment, respectively, under the provisions of the Resource Management Act 1991.

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) is the responsible regulator for any currently held PFOS or PFOA chemicals, under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (the HSNO Act) 1996.

 

Is the PFAS contamination risk as high in NZ as it is in Australia?

The situation in New Zealand is on a much smaller scale compared to Australia, both in terms of contamination area and substance concentration. A 2013 study found that New Zealanders generally had PFOS levels in their blood that were lower than concentrations found in the blood of individuals in the USA, Canada, Germany and Australia. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) levels were similar or lower. New Zealand has used PFAS compounds in consumer and industrial applications, but has not manufactured the substances.

 

What have investigations so far found?

Investigations so far have focused on sites that have used specialist firefighting foams.

 

New Zealand Defence Force

The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) found PFOS and PFHxS in soil and groundwater from the historic use of firefighting foams at Ohakea and Woodbourne air force bases. Detailed investigations are continuing to understand the extent and seasonal variation of PFAS in the environment at and around these bases. Investigations are also underway to understand whether use of firefighting foams at Whenuapai Air Base and Devonport Naval Base has led to contamination. The outcomes of the ongoing NZDF investigations will continue to be made available on the MfE website. The NZDF are working with the respective councils at each site.

 

 

Horizons Regional Council

Horizons Regional Council are working with Rangitikei District Council to investigate the source of the low level (below the drinking water interim guidance level) of PFOS found in the Bulls water supply. The Bulls water supply remains safe to drink.

The NZDF investigated the site of a RNZAF Skyhawk crash in 1996 where foam was reportedly used. Samples of groundwater near the site found no detection of PFAS contamination. Horizons Regional Council are working with Palmerston North City Council to investigate contamination of soil and surface water from the historic use of firefighting foams at Palmerston North Airport.

Taranaki Regional Council Eels in two South Taranaki streams (the Oaonui and Ngapirau) have been found to have elevated levels of PFAS chemicals – the only finding of note in a wide-ranging regional investigation into any such contamination. Locals have received advice from the Ministry of Primary Industries on reducing consumption of eels from the streams.

Environmental Protection Authority (EPA)

The EPA is investigating fire-fighting foams manufactured using PFOS or PFOA that are held or being used at airports and other locations. This is part of the EPA’s compliance responsibilities under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ)

In coordination with local government, Fire and Emergency New Zealand is working to identify and assess risk at its fire training sites around the country where foams containing PFAS (Class B foams) may have been used. Please note that 95% of firefighting foam used by Fire and Emergency New Zealand is Class A foam which does not contain any PFAS compounds.

 

What sort of investigations are being done and what do results mean?

A range of investigations can be undertaken to determine the level of PFAS contamination in the environment. Due to the ultra-trace methods required for these investigations, draft guidance on Sampling and Analysis of PFAS substances has been prepared.

round water and surface water samples are tested for a range of PFAS compounds and compared to the New Zealand interim drinking water guidelines. Repeat sampling in some areas is helping to develop an understanding of the extent and seasonal variation in concentration of PFAS in the environment.

Where landowners and occupiers are producing crops, meat, milk and eggs for their own use, samples can be tested and compared against stock watering and fodder irrigation guidelines.

Where PFAS compounds have been detected in surface water in areas where aquatic kai species are consumed, some sampling of fish, eel, and watercress have been undertaken and compared to diet intake levels.

The Ministry of Health (MoH) has confirmed their advice that there is not a significant public health risk. More information on the health effects of PFAS can be found here.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) advise that there is no risk to the general food supply from produce grown on properties that have been sampled.

In some localised areas, there may be restrictions on how often some food types from affected areas should be consumed.

 

Will the results from all PFAS investigations be made available to the public?

A summary of the results from Crown owned sites will continue to be made available on this website. Individual results from non-Crown owned sites will be treated as confidential and not disclosed unless required by law, or the permission of the property owner is obtained.

 

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

The potential effects of exposure to Perfluorooctane sulphonate (PFOS) and Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) to human health continues 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. 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. Studies have been conducted regarding communities exposed to PFOS and people who have been occupationally exposed to relatively high levels of PFAS. 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 what conclusions can be drawn from their findings.

 

The advice from the Ministry of Health is that there is no acute health risk to people, but in specific instances more detailed local advice may be required. No acute health risk means that exposure to PFOS and/or PFOA will not pose any significant health effects in the short-term. Click here for more information.

 

How can I be exposed to PFAS?

PFAS compounds are used in a wide range of consumer products such as surface-protective coatings on clothing and carpets, paper packaging, non-stick cookware, cosmetics, and consumer electronics. Many manufacturers are reducing, changing or removing PFAS in many of these products, reducing the likelihood of PFOS and PFOA exposure.

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). Completely preventing exposure to PFOS and PFOA is unlikely, and no effective recommendations can be made for reducing individual exposures in the general population.

 

What is the interim guidance level for drinking water?

The World Health Organisation (WHO), 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.

The New Zealand Ministry of Health has accepted the Australian guidance as a provisional guidance level. It is based on a person weighing 70kg drinking 2 litres of water everyday over a lifetime without any significant risk to health.

Interim guidance levels for PFOS and PFOA in drinking water:

PFOS + PFHxS = 0.07µg/L (micrograms per litre)

PFOA = 0.56µg/L (micrograms per litre)

 

How do I find out if my water supply is contaminated?

Drinking water may become contaminated when PFAS is washed from a contaminated site into ground or surface water. If your property is not downstream of a contaminated site, it is unlikely that any investigation would be needed. If you have any concerns, contact your local council or water provider for further advice.

 

What is the risk from consuming foods from affected properties?

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) advise that there is no risk to the general food supply from produce grown on properties that have been sampled.

In some localised areas, there may be recommended restrictions on how often some food types from affected areas should be consumed. Please talk with your regional council for information on any local advice.

 

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

Yes. Any risks to health come from the ingestion of PFOS and PFOA compounds. Water ingested in any water-based activities would be minimal.

 

Are future health problems likely because of PFOS/ PFOA exposure?

Research is being conducted around the world and this is closely monitored by relevant Government agencies in New Zealand. There is no conclusive evidence that PFOS and PFOA exposure will result in future health problems. The evidence of health effects is still unclear, however, and some effects may not be clinically significant. If you have any concerns, please contact Healthline on 0800 611 116.

 

How will I know if the advice changes?

Government agencies will continue to assess the situation, as part of the All of Government National PFAS Programme. This includes the undertaking of comprehensive health and environmental risk assessments and investigation of known and potentially contaminated sites. This website will continue to be updated as new information and advice becomes available.

 

 

Reviewed:
17/09/18