What are they?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many other chemicals (totaling nearly 5,000). PFAS have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries around the globe, including in the United States since the 1940s. PFOA and PFOS have been the most extensively produced and studied of these chemicals.
PFAS do not readily breakdown in the environment and are water soluble. As a result, there are very low levels of PFAS in many areas of the environment. Higher levels can be found in water supplies near facilities that manufactured, disposed, or used PFAS.
How are you exposed to PFAS?
There are a variety of ways that people can be exposed to these chemicals and at different levels.
Typically localized and associated with a specific facility (e.g., manufacturer, landfill, wastewater treatment plant, firefighter training facility).
Packaged in PFAS-containing materials (such as those with oil/moisture repellant coatings), processed with equipment that used PFAS, or grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water.
Including stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products (e.g., Teflon), polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, carpets, leather and apparel, textiles, paper and packaging materials and fire-fighting foams (a major source of groundwater contamination at airports and military bases where firefighting training occurs).
Including wild game for consumption (fish, deer, fowl, etc.), where PFAS build up in the body tissues and persist over time.
Including production facilities or industries (e.g., chrome plating, electronics manufacturing or oilrecovery) that use PFAS.
Certain PFAS chemicals are no longer manufactured in the United States as a result of phase outs including the PFOA Stewardship Program in which eight major chemical manufacturers agreed to eliminate the use of PFOA and related chemicals in their products and facility’s emissions.
In 2009, PFAS were listed under the Stockholm Convention as persistent organic pollutants due to their longevity in the environment, bio accumulative nature, and toxicity.
PFAS chemicals are very persistent in the environment and in the human body – meaning they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time. There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse human health effects.
Although PFOA and PFOS are no longer manufactured in the United States, they are still produced internationally and can be imported into the United States in consumer goods such as carpet, leather and apparel, textiles, paper and packaging, coatings, rubber and plastics.
If people ingest PFAS (by eating or drinking food or water that contain PFAS), the PFAS are absorbed, and can accumulate in the body. PFAS can be found in blood, and at much lower levels in urine, breast milk and in umbilical cord blood. PFAS stay in the human body for long periods of time. As a result, as people are exposed to PFAS from different sources over time, the level of PFAS in their body increases which may lead to adverse health effects. The likelihood of adverse health effects depends on several factors such as the amount and concentration of PFAS ingested as well as the time span of exposure.
Scientists are still learning about the many health effects of exposures to PFAS. There will be developing research for years to come.
How can you decrease your PFAS exposure?
If your drinking water is contaminated above levels specified by the EPA or your state government, use an alternate water source for drinking, cooking, brushing teeth, bathing, and any other activity when you might swallow or submerse in water.
Avoid eating contaminated animal meats. Check with your local or state health and environmental quality departments for fish, deer, fowl and other advisories in your area. Most importantly – follow the advisories.
Even though recent efforts to remove PFAS have reduced the likelihood of exposure, some products may still contain them.