PFAS chemicals include perfluorooctanoic acid, perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, GenX, and others, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. PFAS are a complex group of human-made fluorinated organic chemicals that are produced using several different processes, with the two most common being electrochemical fluorination and telomerization. Both processes use several complex chemical reactions to create polymers — long repeated chains of molecules — and other derivatives.
Once considered a symbol of industrial ingenuity, PFAS have been manufactured and used by numerous industries and companies in the U.S. and around the world. The first PFAS chemicals were developed by chemists at 3M and DuPont during the “better living through chemistry” era of the 1930s and 1940s. At the time, chemists were looking to create coatings and products resistant to heat, oil, stains, grease and water. In 1946, DuPont introduced the PFAS substance Teflon, a nonstick coating on cookware.
Despite the phaseout of some PFAS in U.S. industrial use nearly twenty years ago, the chemicals remain in the environment, including at remote locations, such as the Arctic. In fact, PFAS chemicals are found extensively in water, soil, air, animals and humans. According to the 2019 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, PFAS chemicals, PFOS, PFOA, perfluorohexane sulfonic acid, and perfluorononanoic acid were detected in blood and urine samples of nearly every volunteer tested. In addition, PFAS substances remain in production in other nations, such as China and Japan.
PFAS exposure is a nationwide public health issue because the chemicals remain in the environment and accumulate in the human body over time and exposure. According to the CDC and the EPA, PFAS chemicals are found in:
- Stain- and water-repellent fabrics
- Food packaging, like pizza and takeout boxes
- Heat-resistant nonstick cooking surfaces, e.g. Teflon
- Electrical wire insulation
- Food grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water, or processed with PFAS-tainted equipment
- Polishes, waxes, and paints
- Stain removers and other cleaning products
- Firefighting foams
- Drinking water near a manufacturer, landfill, wastewater treatment plant or firefighter training facility
- Animals, including fish, and humans
Studies + Science
PFAS chemicals are difficult to study because there are at least 4,700 variations of the substances, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The development of PFAS substances extends over the decades, including: the manufacturing of PFOS for stain and water resistant products in the 1950s and firefighting foam in the 1960s, PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene) for waterproof fabrics in 1970s, and PFNA (perfluorononanoic) for architectural resins in the 1980s, until the reduction of PFAS substances in the early 2000s. PFOA and PFOS are the most studied PFAS chemicals.
The health impact of exposure to very low levels of PFAS is not clear, but studies do link the chemicals to adverse health effects. The chemicals are associated with adverse outcomes in the liver, heart, hormone and immune systems, reproductive organs and in fetal development, according to a 2018 CDC human toxicology profile on PFAS, which analyzed over 200 studies from 1996 to 2016.
That CDC report also suggested potential links between perfluoroalkyl exposure and:
- Liver effects - Fluctuations in serum enzymes and serum bilirubin that suggest liver damage, as well as increases in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels
- Cardiovascular effects - Pregnancy-induced high blood pressure and/or preeclampsia, particularly for PFOA and PFOS
- Endocrine effects - Increased risk of thyroid disease
- Immune effects - Decreased antibody responses to vaccines and a possible link to increased risk of asthma
- Reproductive effects - Lower fertility
- Developmental effects - Small declines in birth weight
A 2015 analysis of National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data detected PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS and PFNA in 97-100% of blood samples tested. Male participants had higher levels of the substances, compared to female participants, except for PFOA and PFNA in 60- to 80-year-olds and PFNA in 12- to 20-year-olds.
A 2020 study from the University of Michigan found exposure to PFAS chemicals may have contributed to women reaching menopause two years earlier than average. The researchers followed an ethnically diverse population of premenopausal women for 17 years, measuring PFAS exposure levels using blood samples.
Research also has delved into possible environmental contamination by “forever chemicals.” A 2018 report by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group found that 110 million Americans were exposed to water contaminated with PFAS, or at levels higher than 5 parts per trillion (ppt). Although the EPA has yet to determine a safe threshold for PFAS-tainted water, researchers at the Natural Resources Defense Council have proposed the maximum be set at 2.5 ppt for PFOA, PFOS, PFNA and PFHxS.
In 2016, after sampling and testing all 524 base water supply systems, the Department of Defense found 24 sites with higher levels of PFAS than what is recommended by the EPA. In 2017, the DoD tested 2,445 off-base public and private drinking water systems and found 564 of those sites tested for higher-than-recommended levels of PFAS. The DoD estimated $2 billion cleanup costs to rid PFAS from its facilities and communities across the nation.
Certain U.S. laws and policies regulate PFAS in the environment, including recent initiatives to oversee some of the more common PFAS in ground and drinking water and test for PFAS presence in food. Yet, many PFAS substances go unregulated due to the sheer and growing number of the chemicals.
The 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, also known as Superfund, gives federal authority to address the release of chemical and toxic environmental hazards. For now, PFAS chemicals are not considered hazardous substances according to CERCLA, but the EPA is undergoing efforts to add PFAS to the hazardous substances list in CERCLA Section 102. PFAS is regulated under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Air Act.
In 2006, the EPA invited several manufacturers, including Dupont, Arkema, Asahi, 3M/Dyneon, and Solvay Solexis, to remove PFOA and PFOA-related chemicals from their production and emissions. In 2016, the EPA issued a health advisory, a non-regulatory form of guidance, that established safe levels of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water at no more than 70 parts per trillion. Following several meetings with federal, state and local stakeholders, in 2019 the EPA released its PFAS Action Plan, a multi-office, multi-program strategic plan that outlines key areas, methods and objectives to address PFAS contamination. This included developing a maximum contaminant level for states and local water facilities under the Clean Air Act and developing better ways of detecting the chemicals in the air and water.
In 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the PFAS Action Act, which designates PFAS as hazardous toxins under the Clean Air Act, among other actions. Since then, the legislation has stalled in the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
In 2020, the EPA announced its plan to include 172 PFAS substances to the Toxics Release Inventory, which provides the public with information about the use of certain chemicals. Meanwhile, several states and local governments have taken steps to regulate PFAS in the last several years, often ahead of the EPA.
MedTruth covered the groundbreaking 2020 California law that regulates 24 toxic chemicals, including PFAS (and associated salts), mercury, formaldehyde and isopropylparaben in cosmetic products, and goes into effect in 2025. States including Georgia, Michigan, Virginia, Colorado, Arizona and Minnesota have either proposed or passed legislation to ban PFAS in firefighting foam.
Minnesota was the first state to bring a pollution claim against 3M in 2010 for “negligently discharging PFAS used in the manufacture of Scotchgard into sources of drinking water,” resulting in a $850-million resolution in 2018. Alabama, Minnesota and Michigan have brought similar PFAS lawsuits against companies that produced or utilized PFAS.
In August 2020, eleven local districts in California, including the Orange County Water District, filed a lawsuit in Orange County Court alleging DuPont, 3M, Corteva, and roof manufacturer, Decra Roofing Systems, were responsible for cleanup costs associated with PFAS contamination in the districts' water supplies.
On a federal level, the FDA announced a voluntary agreement in 2020 for companies to phase out certain short-chain PFAS used in grease-proofing paper and cardboard in food packaging that contain 6:2 fluorotelomer alcohol (6:2 FTOH). The phaseout will occur over three years starting January 2021.
The FDA has also tested commonly eaten foods for PFAS contamination, including produce, dairy, seafood, carbonated water and grains, using samples of limited size and locations. Most results have been inconclusive due to the limited samples. FDA tests did find PFAS in dairy, but concluded the levels were not cause for concern. The agency continues to monitor and test milk samples.
While the EPA is currently taking steps toward regulating PFAS, especially in drinking water, ridding the world of “forever chemicals” would be ideal. Those who might be interested in direct advocacy can visit the National Association of Clean Water Agencies’ PFAS page. Additionally, there are films, documentaries, and studies that emphasize the importance of PFAS awareness for a healthy nation.
For more information about avoiding PFAS in drinking water, see MedTruth’s coverage of PFAS in the water. For information about avoiding PFAS in consumer products, visit the Environmental Working Group’s avoiding PFAS page or download their free consumer products guide.
To enact long-term change, however, a great place to start would be to contact local advocacy groups or reach out to elected representatives and demand more extensive testing, prevention and removal methods for PFAS.