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The PFAS Predicament

PFAS is a controversial man-made contaminant found in water and soils near industrial complexes, landfills, airports and military bases.

PFAS sources

Dubbed by environmentalists as “forever chemicals”, PFAS substances are a group of around 4,000 synthetic polymers that take centuries to naturally break down. As a result, they accumulate over time in animals (including humans) and the environment.

These polymers are used in a variety of consumer products such as non-stick cookware, waterproof clothing and fabric stain protection. Firefighting foams, in which PFAS has been a key ingredient since the 1950’s, has caused the most widespread environmental contaminations.

PFAS is a key ingredient in firefighting foams.

PFAS is a key ingredient in firefighting foams. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, water treatment for PFAS is difficult due to the large scale of contaminations and the relatively inert chemical properties of the substances, making them difficult to target and destroy. Research institutions around the world are uncovering new technologies to solve the problem, with several technologies in early phases of piloting and commercialisation.

Some examples include:

Despite numerous reports of potential serious health risks (including cancer, thyroid issues, and auto-immune diseases), many studies have found no evidence of adverse effects for humans living in areas of PFAS contaminations.

A recent PFAS health study by the Australian National University confirmed this, stating: “We did not find evidence that health was worse in PFAS-affected communities than non-affected communities.”

This hasn’t stopped the lawsuits, with a $132 million settlement reached in May between the Commonwealth Government and residents in seven communities across Bullsbrook (WA), Richmond (NSW), Wagga Wagga (NSW), Wodonga/Bandiana (VIC), Edinburgh (SA), Darwin (NT) and Townsville (QLD).

This comes after a $215 million settlement in 2020 with residents of Katherine (NT), Williamstown (NSW), and Oakey (QLD) whose property values declined in value as a result of PFAS contamination.

The PFAS predicament is even bigger in the United States with chemical manufacturing company 3M Co agreeing last month to pay $10.3 billion in compensation to local water authorities for PFAS related remediations.

Thousands of other class actions are in progress around the world, ensuring PFAS will remain a controversial water treatment issue for decades to come.

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