Assessing Effectiveness of PFAS Exposure Control in Exposed Communities and Firefighters

National Health and Medical Research Council

Blood concentrations of certain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have decreased in the general Australian population since our human biomonitoring project started in 2002. However, occupational exposure, and environmental contamination of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), has resulted in elevated PFAS blood concentrations in some individuals, such as firefighters and community members from areas affected by PFAS contamination. PFASs are a group of persistent, man-made compounds that have been used in firefighting foam because of their heat resistant properties. 

The aim of this project is to assess the changes over time in PFAS concentrations in the blood serum, particularly in those identified as having elevated serum PFAS concentrations, to investigate the effectiveness of exposure control and identify factors governing successful exposure reduction.

As part of this project, this study also aims to assess historical temporal PFAS serum concentration trends prior to 2000, in individuals representative of background PFAS exposure.

Current and former firefighters and exposed community members who had previously had their blood tested in either the Airservices Exposure Studies (2018/19 and/or 2014/15) or the PFAS Health Study (2016-2021) were recruited for this project. Participants were asked to fill in a questionnaire and provide a blood sample twice, two years apart (in 2021/22 and 2023/24). The blood samples are analysed for PFAS as well as health biomarkers.

In late 2022, PFAS contamination was detected in the main water at Avalon Airport. Airservices Australia invited us to assist with a study with the aim of better understanding the Avalon Aviation Rescue Fire Fighting Service (ARFFS) staff's exposure to PFAS. Some of the staff members were already participants in the ongoing study. An alternative water source was provided, and Avalon ARFFS staff were asked to provide a blood sample. Approximately 9-11 months later, they were asked to provide a follow up blood sample. This testing is now referred to as the “Avalon Case Study”.

To assess the PFAS blood concentration trends in individuals representative of background PFAS exposure in Australia prior to 2000s, archived blood samples from the ‘Busselton Health Study sample bank” were accessed and analysed for PFAS, known as “The Busselton Study”.


Just over 500 firefighters and 300 community members provided a blood sample during the first blood collection round (2021/22). An overall decrease in PFAS blood concentration compared to the participant's initial sample from the PFAS exposure study was observed. The second blood collection commenced in 2023 and is still ongoing. So far, we have a participant retention of 83% of firefighters and 88% of community members. Further data analysis will be conducted once participants have provided both of their blood samples. Specific expected outcomes include:

  • Change in the concentration (‘trend’) of PFAS in the blood serum of individuals will be calculated,
  • Factors associated with PFAS trends in exposed individuals will be identified,
  • A model for estimating PFAS exposure levels in individuals will be developed,
  • The relationship between changes in PFAS concentrations in serum and health biomarkers will be assessed.

For the “Avalon Case Study”, 29 ARFFS staff provided a blood sample in both the initial and follow up blood testing. Out of these, 66% were blood donors. This allowed us to assess the association between a decrease in PFAS and donations and we found that a greater number of donations was associated with a greater decrease in PFAS serum concentration.

For the “Busselton Study”, we identified three longitudinal blood samples, collected in 1975, 1981, and 1995 from 17 individuals. Several PFAS were detected in the blood as early as 1975, and the total PFAS serum concentration was observed to increase between 1975 and 1995.

Research Outputs

Preliminary study findings/updates are available as factsheet and information session recordings on our website.

Nilsson, S., Bräunig, J., Carey, R.N., Hui, J., Smurthwaite, K., Toms, L.M., Kirk, M.D., Mueller, J.F. and Fritschi, L., 2023. Longitudinal measurements of per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in archived human serum samples between 1975 and 1995 in Australia. Journal of Hazardous Materials443, p.130307.

Conference Abstracts

Nilsson, S., Braunig, J., Carey, R., Hui, J., Smurthwaite, K., Toms, L., Kirk M. D., Fritschi, L. & Mueller, J. F. Using archived serum samples to understand historical human exposure trends of Per-and-poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), ABNA 19th Annual Conference, Biobanking Blue Sky Horizons, 19 - 21 October 2022.

Research Impact

The research project has been presented to the PFAS Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, during an inquiry into the elimination and remediation of PFAS-related impacts in and around defence bases (2022).

Preliminary study findings and updates have been provided to study participants in the form of factsheets and online information sessions.


Project members

Dr Sandra Nilsson

Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Prof Jochen Mueller

Theme Leader, Emerging Environmental Health Risks