Developing biomarkers of environmental exposure to PFAS substances to improve enviro policy & health

Developing biomarkers of environmental exposure to PFAS substances to improve enviro policy & health

Poly/ perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a diverse group of over 4700 man-made, highly fluorinated, synthetic chemicals. For many years PFASs were thought to be inert and non-toxic; little regard was given to their environmental fate.


Reports of PFAS groundwater contamination began in 1999 and the extent of PFAS global contamination was first demonstrated in the early 2000s. Since then, PFAS have been detected in almost every environmental compartment (soil, sediment, oceans, freshwaters, landfills) as well as in wildlife and humans throughout the world. This has led to progressive restrictions on the use of PFAS and considerable national and international concern over potential health impacts. There have been several recent health and community support initiatives rolled out by the Australian Government in response to increasing concerns around chronic exposure to PFAS in areas with high contamination levels, particularly those in proximity to RAAF bases, airports, army bases, and CFA (Country Fire Authority) training sites where the use of PFAS-containing fire retardant foams is prevalent and ongoing. The proposed PFAS environmental quality limits (EQLs) are set at the limits of detection for most high-end mass spectrometers. This means that if any PFAS is detected, the level has theoretically already been breached. Despite all of this, however, there is little to no detailed information on the levels of PFAS that might cause harm in the environment and no consistent evidence of adverse health effects in animals or humans from PFAS exposure. There is, therefore, a significant need for more information on the mechanisms of PFAS toxicity and the doses at which such toxicity occurs.

Metabolomics is a large-scale study of small molecules, known as metabolites. It involves the analysis of either the full metabolite complements (untargeted analysis), or a selected subset thereof (targeted analysis), of a cell, tissue, biofluid, or in some cases, whole organisms. The approach can deliver information on the interactions between organisms and their environments and provides a holistic overview of contaminant exposure. Crucially, changes are metabolism are often equivalent before other ecotoxicological endpoints, for example, effects on reproduction and growth of individuals (and subsequent effects on populations and communities), are apparent. Metabolomic approaches have been used to assess the effects low-level chemical exposure in a variety of species and ecosystems, and a recent study suggested that ‘omics’ technologies, including metabolomics, were ideal methods to detect and analyse the effects of PFAS. This project will put this recommendation into practice.

University:      RMIT University

Supervisor:    A/Prof Oliver Jones

Student:         Georgia Sinclair

Project Outcomes:

  • Assess specific biochemical changes in test organisms following exposure to environmentally relevant levels of PFAS compounds cause
  • Ascertain minimum level and duration of exposure to PFAS necessary to cause the effects observes in step 1 and determine what these effects reveal about PFAS toxicology
  • Test organisms from PFAS contaminated sites to determine if they show the biomarkers developed in step 1
  • Evaluate the data obtained in steps 1-3 to make recommendations to the Water industry and to government with respect to managing the environmental impact of PFAS

Industry Benefits:

  • Demonstrate if the current levels of environmental pollution from PFAS are a cause for concern or if current EQL standards are too strict
  • Inform decisions on environmental quality standards for PFAS that reflect the real-world environment and assist in governmental policy and industry management of PFAS waste
  • Develop methodology for field assessments using environmental metabolomic applications that could be a starting point to delve deeper into understanding of the effects on contamination on the environment
  • Contribute to the knowledge of PFAS exposure occurring in the environment

Please contact Research Capability Manager Carolyn bellamy for further project and student information, or refer to the sponsorship page for 'The Process' document.

WaterRA Contact

Carolyn Bellamy | Research Capability Manager

Amount being sought

$39,000 over three years

Due Date

30th Jun, 2020