Forever chemicals pollute the west’s tap water. What can you do about it?


    You may have read a recent story from The Age about unsafe levels of carcinogens in Australia’s drinking water. One of the suburbs mentioned in the article, and found to contain carcinogens in tap water, is Footscray.

    So how worried should Footscray residents be, and are other western suburbs affected?

    The Westsider reached out to Dr Jianhua Zhang, a Senior Research Fellow with VU’s Institute for Sustainable Industries & Liveable Cities, to provide a summary for us.

    Since the 1940s, over 4700 poly and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been produced, for widespread use in the manufacturing of surfactants, dispersants, lubricants, non-stick cookware, fire suppressants, and aviation hydraulic fluid. 

    PFAS have received considerable attention because of their toxicity, persistence, bioaccumulation and wide presence in the environment. It’s been reported that 98% of Americans have PFAS in their blood. Expert epidemiologists analysed health data and concluded that a ‘probable link’ exists between PFAS exposure and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy induced hypertension and hypercholesterolemia. 

    PFAS have been widely detected in water bodies and sites. The two most used and detected PFAS are perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and are of particular concern in Australia and globally. At least 90 sites across Australia have been contaminated by PFAS due to fire service training. 

    As ‘forever’ chemicals, PFAS will not degrade naturally. Since PFAS are characterised as surfactants, they likely present at the soil surface and spread with winds. The displacement of PFAS contaminated soil from Westgate tunnel in Melbourne enhanced the distribution of PFAS to remote areas, which could end up in water catchments. Furthermore, there are many ‘confidential’ sites in Melbourne that were badly contaminated by PFAS, some along the rivers. 

    From VU’s studies, PFAS concentration in some soil samples could be 10 million times the regulated PFAS concentration allowed in Australia’s drinking water. Storm water leaches PFAS slowly from the soils into rivers. The flooding season of Maribyrnong River last year could have led to hundreds of families contaminated by PFAS. The PFAS in drinking water also originate from soils or dirt carried by the wind. When water catchments are contaminated, all the drinking water from those catchments will contain PFAS. The PFAS detected in the drinking water of Footscray will be present in the drinking water of all other suburbs supplied from the same catchments. So it’s safe to assume that many of Melbourne’s suburbs, including all of those in the west, contain PFAS.

    The bad news is that removing PFAS from catchments is costly and takes a long time. However, it is relatively easy to remove PFAS from drinking water at home. Systems equipped with a reverse osmosis membrane, activated carbon and ion exchange resin filters (certified to remove PFAS) can remove or reduce PFAS effectively. The activated carbon filter is the most economical method and easy to look after. Boiling water will not make a difference.

    There is no easy way to degrade PFAS. Thermal destruction is the only commercialised method, which needs to raise the temperature above 1000°C to convert organic fluoride to inorganic fluoride. It is not cheap, and it is the only way to reduce the ‘forever’ PFAS in our environment. 

    Eliminating PFAS contamination will be a long-term job, but we need to act now. Cleaning PFAS from soil before they reach our catchments is relatively easier than spending billions to clean our water bodies. 

    By Dr Jianhua Zhang

    Our content is a labour of love, crafted by dedicated volunteers who are passionate about the west. We encourage submissions from our community, particularly stories about your own experiences, family history, local issues, your suburb, community events, local history, human interest stories, food, the arts, and environmental matters. Below are articles created by community contributors. You can find their names in the bylines.


    1. I thought the question was ‘What can we do about it?”. have I missed something, or is the answer just ‘nothing?

      • Hey Wendy, As the article says, the only thing you can do about it is buy a water filtration system of some kind.

    Your feedback

    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here



    Latest Articles

    Latest edition

    #98 July 2024

    Recent editions


    Become a supporter

    The Westsider is run on the power of volunteers. Your contribution directly contributes to ensuring we can continue serving and celebrating our community.

    Related articles