Australian Water Found to Contain Forever Chemicals: So, What Can We Do About it?

Australian Water Found to Contain Forever Chemicals: So, What Can We Do About it?

Concerns over the safety of Australian tap water have emerged after an investigation by the Sydney Morning Herald found the drinking water in every state was contaminated with dangerous chemicals. Here’s what we know.

What contaminants have been found in tap water?

The unsafe chemicals detected in Australian drinking water are perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which the World Health Organisation determined back in December to be carcinogenic to humans. Research found PFOA to be carcinogenic to humans based on evidence of cancer in experiments and “strong mechanist evidence” in exposed humans. The study found PFOS was “possibly” carcinogenic to humans.

Earlier in April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) designated both chemicals as hazardous substances and aimed to hold polluters accountable for cleaning up the forever chemicals. The agency found that there was no safe level of exposure to either chemical and designated that 4 parts per trillion (ppt) was enforceable. The current Australian limit for PFOS is 70 ppt, and PFOA is 560 ppt, well beyond the USEPA’s limit.

The SMH has since conducted research into publicly available data, which found that these forever chemicals have been detected in the drinking water of nearly 2 million Australians since 2010. Suburbs across Sydney and NSW, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide, Cairns, Darwin, the Northern Territory and greater Hobart were all identified in a survey published by the University of Queensland in 2011. Some of the areas found to have the highest levels of the chemicals in 2011 included Glenunga (SA), Gundagai (NSW), Marruben (WA), North Richmond (NSW) and Quakers Hill (NSW).

Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, a member of the International Pollutant Elimination Network, said in an interview via Today that “The makers of these kinds of chemicals have had to pay out many millions of dollars in the US to people who have been exposed and who have suffered cancer. Unbelievably though, our regulatory agencies here in Australia just dismiss all of this evidence, and say there’s no clear evidence that they cause disease, which honestly is beyond belief.”

The expert also warned that the chemicals are not just restricted to drinking water and have also been found in items such as food, personal products, paints and pesticides. The worldwide situation has been covered in the new Stan documentary How to Poison a Planet.

What can we do about it?

Experts have called for more frequent testing of water catchments for these chemicals. In Sydney, the only catchment that tests for PFAS is Richmond. NSW Chief Health Officer said in a statement on Tuesday (via SMH) that Australia “may well move to the same levels” as the US following the results of a review being conducted by the National Health and Medical Research Council. NSW Health Minister Ryan Park also reassured that catchments are monitored frequently.

In the meantime, experts have recommended that Australians turn to water filters for their drinking water if concerned. Note that not all water filters achieve the same level of filtration required to eliminate or at least reduce PFOA and PFOS.

The SMH recommends using a filter that employs granular activated carbon (GAC), ion exchange resins or reverse osmosis systems. It’s also important to remember to change the water filter frequently when required, otherwise the process won’t work and could result in even higher levels of chemicals than normal in your drinking water.

Environmental Working Group in the U.S. conducted a test on commonly available water filtration systems to determine which reduced forever chemicals the most. The research resulted in four recommendations (which may cost more to ship internationally to Australia), which you can find here.

Lead Image Credit: iStock

The Cheapest NBN 50 Plans

It’s the most popular NBN speed in Australia for a reason. Here are the cheapest plans available.

At Gizmodo, we independently select and write about stuff we love and think you'll like too. We have affiliate and advertising partnerships, which means we may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page. BTW – prices are accurate and items in stock at the time of posting.