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PFAS – have I been exposed to ‘Forever Chemicals’?

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What are PFAS?

PFAS, the subject of the movie ‘Dark Waters’ and recently released documentary ‘How to Poison a Planet Revealed’ are a group or ‘family’ of over 15,000 man-made chemicals that are not readily bio-degradable, widespread with numerous avenues for exposure and are toxic to environments and animals including humans.

PFAS repeal heat, water, oil, and grease; properties which caused them to become a common ingredient in a large range of products and industries over the years. They were initially used for non-stick and waterproof coatings such as Teflon.

Why is there a concern about PFAS?

PFAS otherwise known as per-and- polyfluoroalkyl substances are formed with strong molecular bonds, meaning they take a very long time to break down and thereby cannot be readily eliminated from the body or easily removed from environments. Accordingly, these chemicals are sometimes referred to as ‘forever chemicals.

Unfortunately, these chemicals can leak into the soil, water, and air.  Over time as animals and humans consume contaminated organic matter and water, come into physical contact with products or items containing PFAS and/or breath in air containing PFAS, the chemicals build up in your body and may have a toxic effect. The general population is primarily exposed via food and drinking water and then via consumer products. Measurable levels of PFAS can be found in most people in developed countries due to their wide use and longevity.  It is though currently considered that the level of exposure for most people is likely to be relatively small. However, people may have heightened exposure in or near locations where PFAS has been more commonly used, e.g., near firefighting training areas.

Australia has banned the use and manufacture of a number of types of PFAS from 1 July 2025; joining 171 other countries that have done the same. Unfortunately, despite the ban, they are already widely throughout Australia and given their longevity they will continue to pose a threat to the environment and animals. Further, they may be replaced with other or newly created PFAS chemicals, exposure of which may similarly be harmful, a fact that may not be known for decades.

What are some PFAS Chemicals?

There are thousands of PFAS chemicals and include:

  • perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) which are considered by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as possibly carcinogenic to humans.
  • perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) which are considered by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as carcinogenic to humans.
  • perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS)
  • polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) otherwise known as TeflonTM

These are among the most well-known members of the PFAS chemical family. The first three are of particular concern as they are mobile in water (do not bond easily to solids and therefore can travel long distances), do not readily break down naturally and are toxic.

What are some common uses for PFAS?

PFAS have been used in consumer products since around the 1930s to 1940s and have now been used in or otherwise the use of them have affected a wide range of industries including:

  • Airports
  • Aviation
  • Chemical
  • Construction
  • Crops
  • Electronics
  • Firefighting
  • Fishing
  • Fuel refineries
  • Livestock
  • Manufacturing
  • Military
  • Mining
  • Photography
  • Textiles and clothing
  • Transport

Products containing PFAS include:

  • Aviation hydraulic fluid
  • Carpets
  • Cleaning products
  • Clothes including waterproof clothing
  • Cosmetics
  • Dental floss
  • Drinking water supplies
  • Fabric softeners
  • Firefighting foam
  • Food packaging including storage contains and paper packaging
  • Medical devices
  • Non-stick cookware
  • Personal care products
  • Photographic materials
  • Shoes
  • Stain and water protection for carpets and fabrics
  • Sunscreen

How can PFAS affect your health?

Epidemiological studies revel that PFAS exposure can result in a large range of adverse impacts on the body. The specific impact will depend on factors such as the amount, duration, and route of exposure as well as specific characteristics of the individual including health status and genetic predisposition.  Associated adverse health effects can include:

  • Altered immune response
  • Altered Thyroid function
  • Cancer including testicular and kidney
  • Increased cholesterol
  • Increased uric acid
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Lower birth weight

If people are concerned about their exposure to PFAS, they can undertake a blood test to measure the levels of PFAS in their blood. This though will not give a definitive association between their PFAS exposure and any adverse health effects they may be experiencing.

If I suffer adverse health effects from PFAS exposure, am I entitled to Compensation?

A worker diagnosed with a condition alleged to be due to PFAS exposure may be entitled to WorkCover compensation in Victoria based on the nature of their employment (whether current or former employment).

It must be shown that the nature of their employment significantly increased their risk of developing their condition than had they not been employed in employment of that nature. No causative link with a specific employer is though required for statutory benefits compensation where the worker is suffering from a disease. They would also need to establish there is an accepted association between their condition and the nature of their employment, including that the nature of their employment could have exposed them to PFAS.

Irrespective of any potential occupational or other forms of PFAS exposure an individual may be entitled to benefits through their superannuation or other personal insurance policies.