Health and social concerns about living in three communities affected by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS): A qualitative study in Australia

By Cathy Banwell, Tambri Housen, Kayla Smurthwaite, Susan Trevenar, Liz Walker, Katherine Todd, May Rosas, and Martyn Kirk
PLoS One
January 19, 2021
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0245141


Exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) is a public health issue globally. In Australia high concentrations of PFAS have been found in environments close to sites where Aqueous Film Forming Foams (AFFF) were historically used for firefighting activities. This has resulted in significant community concern about the potential long-term health effects of these chemicals.


We describe residents' perceptions and experiences of PFAS in three regional Australian towns where exposure has occurred.


We conducted focus groups to generate free-flowing open discussion on PFAS in three affected communities, including some with significant numbers of First Nations Peoples. We recruited participants using a range of media outlets and postal services. Focus group transcripts were analysed thematically to identify major shared concerns using Atlas Ti.


One hundred and eighty residents attended fifteen focus groups that were conducted in the three communities. They included 69 First Nations People living in three communities near the town of Katherine in the Northern Territory. Study participants were concerned about potential physical health effects of exposure to PFAS, such as cancer clusters, unexplained deaths, potential exacerbation of existing health conditions, and the future health of their children. They expressed feelings of stress and anxiety about living with uncertainty related to the possible health and the socio-economic impacts of PFAS contamination in their communities.


While research has concentrated on the physical health effects of PFAS, more attention needs to be given to the immediate psychosocial impacts of living in an affected community.

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