A new study in Australia, published in the International Journal of Population Data Science (IJPDS), did not find enough evidence to link PFAS (per and poly fluoroalkyl substances) exposure to poorer child development. However, the health effects of PFAS continue to be an active area of research in Australia and internationally.

PFAS are known as ‘forever chemicals’ because they do not break down easily in the environment or in our bodies. Many industrial chemicals, including PFAS, are now global contaminants due to their movement across water and land. Chemicals such as lead, mercury, arsenic and a variety of pesticides are increasingly thought to be harmful to child development. The developing brain and nervous system are sensitive to toxic chemicals, and may be more so during certain growth stages. Less is known about the role of PFAS in child development.

PFAS are found in many household and personal products, so most people have a low level of PFAS in their bodies. However, the use of PFAS-containing fire-fighting foams on Australian military bases resulted in widespread contamination of local towns (including drinking water and food). These towns include Katherine in the Northern Territory, Oakey in Queensland and Williamtown in New South Wales. Previous studies show that the residents of these towns have higher levels of certain types of PFAS than the rest of the population.

A new study led by Sadie Law and Professor Rosemary Korda of the Australian National University linked administrative address data with a school-based census that collects data on children’s development. This allowed researchers to track all children living (or who previously lived) in the affected towns and see how they scored in areas such as language, cognition and communication skills compared to children living in non-PFAS-affected towns. The study encompassed a total of 5,531 children.

The study findings did not support that children who lived in the PFAS-affected towns experienced poorer development. Ms. Law states ‘While we were interested in the potential harms of living in these towns, other studies continue to be conducted using other measures of PFAS exposure and/or different measures of development. We will be following these studies closely to see how the findings compare to ours.

The use of PFAS-containing fire-fighting foams have been phased out since the 2000s and water filtration and soil remediation efforts in the affected towns are ongoing.


Click here to view the full article

Hsei Di Law, National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, Australian National University

Law, H. D., Armstrong, B., D'este, C., Hosking, R., Smurthwaite, K., Trevenar, S., Lazarevic, N., Lucas, R., Clements, A., Kirk, M. and Korda, R. (2024) “Relative risks of childhood developmental vulnerabilities in three Australian communities with exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances: data linkage study”, International Journal of Population Data Science, 9(1). doi: 10.23889/ijpds.v9i1.2180.