The Committee’s second progress report discusses evidence from the Department of Health’s appearance on 24 February 2020, and Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) appearance on 15 June 2020.
On 22 October 2021, the Committee received an update from the Department of Health and FSANZ. Some of the key issues discussed with the Department of Health and FSANZ at this hearing included:
support for medical research,
community engagement that the Department of Health has undertaken,
mental health support services for PFAS-affected communities,
health based guidance values for PFAS,
the findings of the Australian Total Diet Study, and
trigger points for contaminated site investigation.
Role of Department of Health
The Department of Health oversees ‘enquiries about health-based guidance values for PFAS; community support including mental health and counselling services; … and water quality guidelines for drinking and recreational water.’ In addition, the Department of Health is involved in the commissioning of blood testing and health research.
Role of Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ)
Food Standards Australia New Zealand is part of the Federal Government’s health portfolio.
The FSANZ stated its primary objective ‘is to protect public health and safety by ensuring a safe food supply’, which it does ‘by setting, but not enforcing, food standards for Australia and New Zealand in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code.’ These ‘standards apply to domestically produced and imported foods.’ The FSANZ also ‘develop[s] guidelines, undertake[s] targeted surveillance of the food supply and coordinate[s] food recall and national incident response activities.’
Support for medical research by the Australian Government
The Department of Health stated that ‘the inclusion of PFAS testing as part of ABS’s Intergenerational Health and Mental Health Study’ will provide a ‘robust national benchmark for PFAS exposure’.
The Department of Health also stated that it will ‘continue monitoring research into potential health impacts of PFAS, including the nine studies funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council’s targeted call for research.’ The Department of Health further stated that ‘new evidence is considered to ensure that our responses remain appropriate and support positive health outcomes’.
Community engagement by the Department of Health
The Department of Health stated that it would ‘continue to work with other agencies to support community engagement activities as required.’ The Department of Health detailed that since February 2020 it had:
… supported community engagement activities held by the Department of Defence, including attending information sessions in Jervis Bay as well as those held by the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications on Norfolk Island to provide information to community members on any health-related concerns.
The ANU PFAS Health Study was funded by the Australian Government. The Department of Health stated that it will also ‘facilitate the delivery and communication of the final reports of the ANU study to the affected communities, broader stakeholder groups and the public.’ The results of the ANU PFAS Health Study is further discussed in Chapter 9.
Dedicated mental health support services
The Department of Health advised that ‘the PFAS-specific mental health services ceased in 2019-20.’ As such the Department of Health was not able to provide advice on any change or increase in residents seeking mental health services in PFAS-affected communities, stating that it is ‘very difficult to disentangle the use of mental health services in these regions.’
The Department of Health referred to the ANU PFAS Health Study as having explored specific mental health impacts in PFAS-affected communities. The ANU PFAS Health Study is discussed further in Chapter 9.
Mr Roddam, First Assistant Secretary, Mental Health Division, Department of Health stated that it was important to make ‘sure that people are aware of our service, in terms of mental health support, and the service environment around them.’ Mr Roddam also highlighted support services ‘that are already in the community, or through digital services.’
The Australian Government response to the Committee’s second progress report in January 2022 stated:
Whilst these specific PFAS mental health services will cease, people impacted by PFAS are able to access the full range of Government-funded mental health services, including Medicare-subsidised psychology services, other PHN commissioned mental health services, and low-cost and free digital mental health services.
Health based guidance values for PFAS
FSANZ recommended Australian ‘health based guidance values for PFAS’, which were published in 2017. FSANZ stated that ‘these are known as tolerable daily intakes and represent the highest safe level of the chemical that people can consume through food every day of their life.’
The Department of Health stated the ‘the guidance that is provided by FSANZ is then used by states and territories to provide specific guidance, in a local context, for all communities.’
FSANZ acknowledged that ‘a notable characteristic of health based guidance values for PFAS is differences in values established by authorities worldwide, despite largely considering the same data.’ FSANZ observed that ‘this is not unusual in chemical risk assessments and reflects differences in scientific policy and regulatory environments’, and elaborated that:
For PFAS chemicals, the international differences are attributable mainly to differences in the use of animal or human data, modelling techniques and the application of uncertainty factors. FSANZ continue to monitor the evolving literature in this area and are confident that our 2017 tolerable daily intakes remain protective of human health.
Trigger points for contaminated site investigation
The FSANZ advised that the results of the 27th Australian Total Diet Study referred to the general Australian food supply, and was not specific to PFAS-affected areas. For PFAS-affected areas, the Department of Health understood that ‘as part of the detailed site investigations undertaken by Defence, they typically do include different types of food, including generally cattle … and probably other types of meat as well.’
The FSANZ stated that it undertook work ‘recommending PFAS trigger points for contaminated site investigation.’ The FSANZ elaborated that:
Trigger points represent the maximum concentration of these chemicals that could present in different foods so that even high-level consumers of these foods would not exceed the safe levels of dietary exposure. The trigger points have been used by authorities when analysing PFAS in foods to identify whether further investigation of a food may be required.
The FSANZ stated in October 2021 that ‘based on all of our analysis of the data, the trigger points remain valid.’ The FSANZ advised that it had ‘not been approached by jurisdictions to have further discussions around the changing of those trigger values’, and as such those trigger points remain the values that should be used and implemented by jurisdictions.
The FSANZ advised that it had not undertaken any studies on meat specifically from affected areas. The FSANZ detailed that it ‘worked with the Northern Territory Department of Health in relation to PFAS monitoring of concentrations in food and dietary exposures’ in 2018, where sampling was not undertaken by FSANZ but information provided to it on ‘fish and seafood from Darwin waters, fruit and vegetables, and also some animal products.’ The FSANZ detailed that ‘since that time we haven’t had any more input into work in that area.’
Low levels of PFAS in the general Australian food supply
As part of the 27th Australian Total Diet Study, the ‘ongoing monitoring survey of the general Australian food supply’, FSANZ investigated a broad range of Australian foods and beverages for levels of PFAS. The FSANZ used these results ‘estimate dietary exposure for the general Australian population.’ The FSANZ detailed that ‘PFOS, PFOA, PFHxS’ were the three primary PFAS congeners of interest:
Over 4,000 food samples, representing 112 different foods, were collected from retail outlets from all Australian states and territories. Food samples were prepared to a table-ready state—including cooking when required—composited and analysed for 30 different PFAS congeners, including three congeners of primary interest for food safety. These were PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS.
The FSANZ advised that ‘the 27th Australian Total Diet Study found PFAS levels in the general Australian food supply were very low.’ The FSANZ stated ‘PFOS was the only congener detected out of the 30 analysed, and it was detected in five of the 112 food types and less than two per cent of all samples’, these five foods including ‘mammalian offal, tuna, prawns, fish fillets and eggs.’ The FSANZ stated that ‘the overall exposure to PFOS for the general Australian population is lower than the TDI, the tolerable daily intake, indicating no public health and safety concerns’:
PFAS levels in Australian foods were consistently lower than those found in several overseas studies. PFAS levels were also well below Australian guidance values, including the FSANZ trigger points for site investigations and the National Health and Medical Research Council’s drinking water guidelines. … In the absence of public health and safety concerns in relation to the general food supply, there is no current need to consider establishing food regulatory measures such as maximum levels for PFAS in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code.
The Department of Health and Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has played an important role in the response to PFAS, in monitoring research on the health impacts of PFAS, issuing guidance on the tolerable daily intakes for PFAS, and recommending the trigger points for contaminated site investigation.
The Committee understands that the FSANZ sets standards, and notes advice from FSANZ that chemical regulation and food safety is a state and territory government responsibility to enforce and implement. The Committee notes that specific food safety advice in PFAS-affected locations has been issued by state and territory Environment Protection Authorities (EPAs).
The Committee in its second progress report in August 2020 had observed the continued need for mental health services. The Committee heard further evidence on the mental health impacts in PFAS-affected communities from the ANU PFAS Health Study, discussed in Chapter 9.
The Committee notes advice that the PFAS-specific mental health services in Williamtown, Katherine and Oakey have ceased. The Committee understands that the Department of Health is engaged in mental health promotion in PFAS-affected areas.
The Committee acknowledges evidence that the Australian Total Diet Study found that there were low levels of PFAS in the general Australian food supply.
The Committee acknowledges evidence from FSANZ that it has reviewed the evolving literature, and assessed that the tolerable daily intakes levels for PFAS remain valid and ‘protective of human health’.
As discussed in Chapter 2, the Committee heard community members continue to be concerned with the adoption of lower tolerable daily intakes in Australia, compared to other countries. The Committee acknowledges advice from FSANZ that international variations in chemical risk assessments is not considered unusual.
The Committee notes that these international variations have caused community members to view the information provided by the FSANZ and Department of Health with distrust. The Committee considers that the Department of Health has an important role in providing assurance that its information is reasoned and valid, particularly as it applies to human health protection in PFAS-exposed communities.
The Committee considers that the Department of Health and FSANZ should prioritise its attendance at community engagement events, to update residents on the Department’s understanding of evolving literature. The Committee notes that the Department of Health has supported community engagement events arranged by other government departments, including the Department of Defence.