Psychological distress in three Australian communities living with environmental per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances contamination

Nina Lazarevic*, Kayla S. Smurthwaite, Philip J. Batterham, Jo Lane, Susan M. Trevenar, Catherine D'Este, Archie C.A. Clements, Amelia L. Joshy, Rose Hosking, Imogen Gad, Aparna Lal, Hsei Di Law, Catherine Banwell, Deborah A. Randall, Adrian Miller, Tambri Housen, Rosemary J. Korda, Martyn D. Kirk

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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    Background: Environmental chemical contamination is a recognised risk factor for psychological distress, but has been seldom studied in the context of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination. We examined psychological distress in a cross-sectional study of three Australian communities exposed to PFAS from the historical use of aqueous film-forming foam in firefighting activities, and three comparison communities without environmental contamination. Methods: Participation was voluntary following recruitment from a PFAS blood-testing program (exposed) or random selection (comparison). Participants provided blood samples and completed a survey on their exposure history, sociodemographic characteristics, and four measures of psychological distress (Kessler-6, Distress Questionnaire-5, Patient Health Questionnaire-15, and Generalised Anxiety Disorder-7). We estimated prevalence ratios (PR) of clinically-significant psychological distress scores, and differences in mean scores: (1) between exposed and comparison communities; (2) per doubling in PFAS serum concentrations in exposed communities; (3) for factors that affect the perceived risk of living in a community exposed to PFAS; and (4) in relation to self-reported health concerns. Results: We recruited 881 adults in exposed communities and 801 in comparison communities. We observed higher levels of self-reported psychological distress in exposed communities than in comparison communities (e.g., Katherine compared to Alice Springs, Northern Territory: clinically-significant anxiety scores, adjusted PR = 2.82, 95 % CI 1.16–6.89). We found little evidence to suggest that psychological distress was associated with PFAS serum concentrations (e.g., Katherine, PFOS and anxiety, adjusted PR = 0.85, 95 % CI 0.65–1.10). Psychological distress was higher among exposed participants who were occupationally exposed to firefighting foam, used bore water on their properties, or were concerned about their health. Conclusion: Psychological distress was substantially more prevalent in exposed communities than in comparison communities. Our findings suggest that the perception of risks to health, rather than PFAS exposure, contribute to psychological distress in communities with PFAS contamination.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number162503
    JournalScience of the Total Environment
    Publication statusPublished - 20 May 2023


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