Articles

Dealing with emerging contaminants


At EPA, we understand being a modern regulator means preparing for the future environmental challenges which Victoria
may face. As part of that role, EPA’s Chief Environmental Scientist and the
Applied Science team have spent the past year building our understanding of
emerging contaminants. Emerging contaminants are a whole range of
different chemicals produced by a whole range of different activities that we
don’t know a lot about but that we’re finding in the environment. So for
example, there are some pharmaceuticals, firefighting chemicals, those (chemicals) that are used as insecticides and pesticides that we don’t have any standards for but we
actually know that they’re present in the environment. We may not even be clear about their health effects either and hence they’re called emerging
contaminants of concern. EPA Victoria has initiated a program on emerging
contaminants because we need to start understanding the nature of these
chemicals, how they might find their way into the environment and, importantly,
how people might get exposed to them or how the environment might respond to
them. The reason we’re concerned about this is
there are thousands of new chemicals being introduced into Australia every
year. Over the past year, EPA’s also continued to lead the way in preventing
and managing the environmental and human health impacts associated with a group
of manufactured chemicals known as PFAS. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances
are effectively a class of several thousand compounds. They’ve been used in firefighting, in training facilities for fire fighters. They’ve been used in
cookware and a range of domestic products. Because they’ve got some fire
retardant properties, unfortunately what we have discovered is that they are also
quite mobile and they are persistent in the environment.
Because they had such widespread use, a number of them are found in
environmental samples. They’re an interesting group of chemicals because
it’s not that usual to have things that are both persistent and mobile and
accumulate in particular species. In terms of studies on human health,
both occupational and community health, the jury is out in terms of whether PFAS
do cause particular health outcomes or whether they don’t and what that means
is there’s some inconsistency in the studies that have been done. As a result
of that, EPA takes a precautionary approach and we talk about preventing
exposure because if you prevent exposure you can’t have a health effect. Under the
direction of the Heads of EPAs Australia and New Zealand,
EPA Victoria has taken a lead role in the development of the PFAS national
environmental management plan. We organised an international summit to
bring together the expertise we needed to underpin this plan. We’ve brought
together all Australian regulators to ensure a plan that was both meaningful and practical and able to be applied throughout Australia. Ultimately, the
National Environmental Management Plan was approved by all environment
ministers in Australia, meaning we had a nationally consistent plan that
could be rolled out in every state of Australia. The PFAS management plan
covers how to assess PFAS-contaminated sites, how to measure PFAS, how to monitor those sites and ultimately how we clean up those sites. This is an extremely
valuable resource for both Victoria and Australia. It enables industry to go
ahead and deal with contamination with certainty and confidence.

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