Non-polymer PFAS can build up in blood protein of animals, and is not always removed quickly. This means that predators eating PFAS-contaminated food will have higher levels in their bloodstream, and concentrations can increase up the food chain. Studies suggest that build up of PFAS is similar to those of other Persistent Organic Pollutants such as DDT.PFAS are estimated to be settling in arctic regions at rates of tens to hundreds of kilograms per year (25-850kg per year), depending on the specific PFAS chemical in question. Certain PFAS are released as gases to the environment and are blown a long way by wind and air currents in the atmosphere,. These gas PFAS will over time degrade to more persistent chemicals like PFOS and PFOA. This may be one reason why PFAS of environmental concern have been found in remote regions such as the Arctic as well as near PFAS production sitesPFAS including PFOS and PFOA have been found in air samples around Europe. The chemicals are found in small quantities, but appear in almost all samples tested. PFAS enters the atmosphere both from factories and the air inside our homes. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17554424 PFAS is found in treated waste water from industrial and domestic sources and has been found in both rivers and groundwater. Conventional drinking water processes will not remove PFAS.PFAS-coated clothes that are thrown away will often end up either incinerated or in landfill. Unless incinerated at very high temperatures (>1000oC), fluorinated polymers could release more harmful PFAS during burning. PFAS of environmental concern have also been found in landfill leachate. Non-polymer PFAS are used in the production of fluorinated polymers. The manufacture of stain-resistant finishes generally releases these PFASs into the environment, both by air and water emissions. They are very hard to remove during water treatment. Workers in textiles factories are some of the population most exposed to these potentially harmful chemicals. Small quantities of PFAS will be removed during wash and wear of products containing PFAS. This includes fluorinated polymers used on stain-resistant coatings, and non-polymers that remain on clothes after production (Lassen et al. 2015).Most UK waste still ends up in landfill, and this includes PFAS-containing products. Studies have shown that the liquid coming from landfills (known as leachate) often contain non-polymer PFAS chemicals. In the USA the total quantities were estimated at 563-638 kg in 2013. To properly break down PFAS chemicals high temperature (1000oC or more) incineration is recommended. Incineration of municipal waste does not necessarily reach these temperatures (min temp. required is 850oC), and the incomplete breakdown could release non-polymer PFAS.Wash and wear of clothing that contains PFAS-based stain-resistant or water repellent finishes release PFAS to the environment. Coatings are thought to lose effectiveness after 20-30 washes. This can include non-polymer PFAS, remnant from production or as a break-down product of side-chain polymers (Lassen et al. 2015). The manufacture of stain-resistant finishes releases PFASs into the environment, both by air and water emissions. PFAS are very hard to remove during water treatment. Industrial emissions are estimated to be the biggest source of these chemicals to the environment.

What are PFAS?

Per- or poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of over 4,700 industrial chemicals 1[1] www.chemtrust.org/pfas/  used in everyday products  

Have you bought a Teflon frying pan? Is there PTFE in your bike oil? Have you seen ‘PFC-free’ labels on waterproofs? These are all terms used for PFAS.  PFAS are a group of over 4700 industrial chemicals, widely used in everyday products from food packaging 2[2] Rosenmai, A.K., Taxvig, C., Svingen, T., Trier, X., van Vugt‐Lussenburg, B.M.A., Pedersen, M., Lesné, L., Jégou, B. and Vinggaard, A.M., 2016. Fluorinated alkyl substances and technical mixtures used in food paper‐packaging exhibit endocrine‐related activity in vitro. Andrology, 4(4), pp.662-672., toiletries and non-stick cookware to clothing and carpets. Since PFAS first came into common use in the 1950s their number of uses (and the number of names for them) has sky rocketed.

The PFAS used in our everyday products leak into our environment during production, use and disposal, and now contaminate our blood 2[2] Rosenmai, A.K., Taxvig, C., Svingen, T., Trier, X., van Vugt‐Lussenburg, B.M.A., Pedersen, M., Lesné, L., Jégou, B. and Vinggaard, A.M., 2016. Fluorinated alkyl substances and technical mixtures used in food paper‐packaging exhibit endocrine‐related activity in vitro. Andrology, 4(4), pp.662-672., water 3[3] Möller, A., Ahrens, L., Surm, R., Westerveld, J., van der Wielen, F., Ebinghaus, R. and de Voogt, P., 2010. Distribution and sources of polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the River Rhine watershed. Environmental Pollution, 158(10), pp.3243-3250., air 4[4] Barber, J.L., Berger, U., Chaemfa, C., Huber, S., Jahnke, A., Temme, C. and Jones, K.C., 2007. Analysis of per-and polyfluorinated alkyl substances in air samples from Northwest Europe. Journal of environmental monitoring, 9(6), pp.530-541. and food.

‘Forever Chemicals’

PFAS are often referred to as the ‘forever chemicals’ 5[5] www.chemtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/PFAS_Brief_CHEMTrust_2019.pdf  because of their extreme persistence in the environment. Some forms of PFAS can take over 1000 years to degrade. This persistence is why the actions we take today have such a huge effect on the state of our world tomorrow. A paper bag might disintegrate and slowly disappear from sight, but the chemicals left behind could be damaging the environment for thousands for years.

The PFAS Problem

We know very little about the health and environmental toxicity of the vast majority of this huge group of chemicals. What we do know, is that the ones that have been studied in depth are toxic. We know they can cause harm to both humans and wildlife and we know that once they get into our environment there is virtually no way we can get rid of them. Almost all the PFAS ever made is still out there in our environment today. Continuing to produce and use PFAS at our current rate is simply a risk too great to accept.

PFAS and the Environment

We’ve seen the dangers of single-use plastic and marine litter, and we know about their devastating impact. But what about the pollution we can’t see?

We can’t see molecules of PFAS spreading throughout our environment, but they are there. We don’t see them wrapping themselves around marine life and we don’t see them spilling out of the stomachs of sea birds, but PFAS are there and they are causing harm. We know, for example, that some PFAS can harm the immune system, kidney function and liver function of bottlenose dolphins and the immune system of sea otters 6[6] https://chemtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/PFAS_Brief_CHEMTrust_2019.pdf. Studies have also suggested PFAS could be building up in remote arctic polar bears to levels capable of causing neurological damage, interfering with their hormones systems and disrupting reproduction 7, 8[7] Eggers Pedersen, K.; Basu, N.; Letcher, R.; Greaves, A. K.; Sonne, C.; Dietz, R.; Styrishave, B., Brain region-specific perfluoroalkylated sulfonate (PFSA) and carboxylic acid (PFCA) accumulation and neurochemical biomarker Responses in east Greenland polar Bears (Ursus maritimus). Environmental Research 2015, 138, 22-31.

[8] Butt, C. M.; Berger, U.; Bossi, R.; Tomy, G. T., Levels and trends of poly- and perfluorinated compounds in the arctic environment. Sci Total Environ 2010, 408 (15), 2936-65.
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The carbon-fluorine bond in PFAS is one of the strongest known to nature. Under typical soil conditions, it can take over 1,000 years for some PFAS to degrade 9, 10[9] Russell, M. H.; Berti, W. R.; Szostek, B.; Buck, R. C., Investigation of the Biodegradation Potential of a Fluoroacrylate Polymer Product in Aerobic Soils. Environmental Science & Technology 2008, 42 (3), 800-807.

[10] Washington, J. W.; Ellington, J. J.; Jenkins, T. M.; Evans, J. J.; Yoo, H.; Hafner, S. C., Degradability of an Acrylate-Linked, Fluorotelomer Polymer in Soil. Environmental Science & Technology 2009, 43 (17), 6617-6623.
. Very few PFAS are currently regulated for their persistence and toxicity, however growing evidence suggests these are properties likely to be shared across the majority of the chemical group 11[11] Cheryl A. Moody; Jonathan W. Martin; Wai Chi Kwan; Derek C. G. Muir, a.; Scott A. Mabury*, Monitoring Perfluorinated Surfactants in Biota and Surface Water Samples Following an Accidental Release of Fire-Fighting Foam into Etobicoke Creek. 2001..

To safeguard our environment and wildlife for the future, we need to act now. Every day that passes, the environmental burden of these harmful chemicals increases.

How do PFAS enter the environment?

PFAS can be released into the environment at every stage of a products lifecycle. They can be lost during chemical manufacture or as the chemicals are applied to the final product 12[12] Hansen KJ, Johnson HO, Eldridge JS, Butenhoff JL, Dick LA. Quantitative characterization of trace levels of PFOS and PFOA in the Tennessee River. Environ Sci Technol 2002;36(8):1681-5.. They can come off during use, transferring from packaging into the food we eat 13[13] Trier, X.; Taxvig, C.; Rosenmai, A. K.; Pedersen, G. A. PFAS in paper and board for food contact - options for risk management of poly- and perfluorinated substances; 978-92-893-5328-1; Nordic Council of Ministers: Copenhagen K, Denmark, 2017., or as the rain washes bike oil from our chain. PFAS-based waxes used on skis and snowboards leave a trail of forever chemicals in their wake 14[14] Skedung, L.; Svedlund, J., Fact sheet - PFAS in skiing. 2019..  Even after disposal, these chemicals can leak from landfills and contaminate our recycling 15[15] OECD Toward a new comprehensive global database of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs): summary report on updating the OECD 2007 list of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs); 2018.. PFAS outlive both the products that contain them and the people that buy them. They are lost into wastewater and discharged into streams. PFAS can’t be removed by standard water treatment works, so they flow out with treated water and get spread on our fields 16[16] Becker AM, Gerstmann S, Frank H. Perfluorooctane surfactants in waste waters, the major source of river pollution. Chemosphere 2008;72(1):115-21.. They are sprayed directly into our environment in firefighting foams 17[17] Cheryl A. Moody, Jonathan W. Martin, Wai Chi Kwan, Derek C. G. Muir a, Scott A. Mabury*. Monitoring Perfluorinated Surfactants in Biota and Surface Water Samples Following an Accidental Release of Fire-Fighting Foam into Etobicoke Creek. 2001. .

Once in the environment, PFAS can move, spread and cause damage for thousands of years.

These industrial chemicals are now found in marine animals, seabirds and predators in all parts of the world 18[18] Bryan Boulanger, John Vargo, Jerald L. Schnoor a, Keri C. Hornbuckle*. Detection of Perfluorooctane Surfactants in Great Lakes Water. 2004. . They have been recorded in our air 19[19] Barber JL, Berger U, Chaemfa C, Huber S, Jahnke A, Temme C, Jones KC. Analysis of per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances in air samples from Northwest Europe. J Environ Monit 2007;9(6):530-41., water 20, 21[20] Ahrens L, Gerwinski W, Theobald N, Ebinghaus R. Sources of polyfluoroalkyl compounds in the North Sea, Baltic Sea and Norwegian Sea: Evidence from their spatial distribution in surface water. Marine Pollution Bulletin 2010;60(2):255-260.

[21] Yamashita N, Kannan K, Taniyasu S, Horii Y, Petrick G, Gamo T. A global survey of perfluorinated acids in oceans. Marine Pollution Bulletin 2005;51(8):658-668.
, sediment 22, 23[22] Ahrens L, Felizeter S, Ebinghaus R. Spatial distribution of polyfluoroalkyl compounds in seawater of the German Bight. Chemosphere 2009;76(2):179-184.

[23] Zushi Y, Tamada M, Kanai Y, Masunaga S. Time trends of perfluorinated compounds from the sediment core of Tokyo Bay, Japan (1950s-2004). Environ Pollut 2010;158(3):756-63.
, plants 24[24] Muller, C. E.; De Silva, A. O.; Small, J.; Williamson, M.; Wang, X.; Morris, A.; Katz, S.; Gamberg, M.; Muir, D. C., Biomagnification of perfluorinated compounds in a remote terrestrial food chain: Lichen-Caribou-wolf. Environ Sci Technol 2011, 45 (20), 8665-73.  and wildlife 25[25] Magali Houde, ‡, Jonathan W. Martin, Robert J. Letcher, Keith R. Solomon a, Derek C. G. Muir*, ‡. Biological Monitoring of Polyfluoroalkyl Substances:  A Review. 2006.. They are found in
rain  26[26] Kim S-K, Kannan K. Perfluorinated Acids in Air, Rain, Snow, Surface Runoff, and Lakes: Relative Importance of Pathways to Contamination of Urban Lakes. 2007., ground and tap water 27,[27] Melissa M. Schultz, Douglas F. Barofsky a, Jennifer A. Field*, ‡. Quantitative Determination of Fluorotelomer Sulfonates in Groundwater by LC MS/MS. 2004. 28[28] Ericson I, Domingo JL, Nadal M, Bigas E, Llebaria X, van Bavel B, Lindstrom G. Levels of perfluorinated chemicals in municipal drinking water from Catalonia, Spain: public health implications. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol 2009;57(4):631-8., rivers 29, 30, 31[29] Hansen KJ, Johnson HO, Eldridge JS, Butenhoff JL, Dick LA. Quantitative characterization of trace levels of PFOS and PFOA in the Tennessee River. Environ Sci Technol 2002;36(8):1681-5.

[30] Michael S. McLachlan, Katrin E. Holmström, Margot Reth a, Berger U. Riverine Discharge of Perfluorinated Carboxylates from the European Continent. 2007.

[31] Möller A, Ahrens L, Surm R, Westerveld J, van der Wielen F, Ebinghaus R, de Voogt P. Distribution and sources of polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the River Rhine watershed. Environmental Pollution 2010;158(10):3243-3250.
, lakes 32[32] Bryan Boulanger, John Vargo, Jerald L. Schnoor a, Keri C. Hornbuckle*. Detection of Perfluorooctane Surfactants in Great Lakes Water. 2004. , oceans
21, 33, 34[21] Yamashita N, Kannan K, Taniyasu S, Horii Y, Petrick G, Gamo T. A global survey of perfluorinated acids in oceans. Marine Pollution Bulletin 2005;51(8):658-668.

[33] Nobuyoshi Yamashita, Kurunthachalam Kannan, ‡, Sachi Taniyasu, Yuichi Horii, Tsuyoshi Okazawa, Gert Petrick a, Gamo‖ T. Analysis of Perfluorinated Acids at Parts-Per-Quadrillion Levels in Seawater Using Liquid Chromatography-Tandem Mass Spectrometry. 2004.

[34] Yeung LWY, Dassuncao C, Mabury S, Sunderland EM, Zhang X, Lohmann R. Vertical Profiles, Sources, and Transport of PFASs in the Arctic Ocean. Environ Sci Technol 2017;51(12):6735-6744.
and even the breast milk we feed our children 6[6] https://chemtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/PFAS_Brief_CHEMTrust_2019.pdf.

What happens to PFAS once in the environment?

PFAS in the environment don’t go away, but they do move. Their mobility means they can be found far from their original sources. You don’t need to live beside a PFAS factory to be exposed to their effects. When we release PFAS into our water, it flows from stream, to river, to sea, circulating in ocean currents. Once it gets into the tiniest of organisms, its position in the food chain simply grows. From plankton, to small fish, to big fish, to sea bird (unless of course we catch the big fish and take it straight to our plates). They are in the air we breath, the soil our food is grown in, the water we drink and from the environment PFAS can reach people and wildlife worldwide.

PFAS and our Health

PFAS are in our blood. More than 99% of Americans have been found to have PFOS and PFOA (two well known, harmful forms of PFAS) in their blood, and the numbers are thought to be similar all over the world. We are exposed to PFAS every day, from many different sources, everything from drinking water and food packaging, to the dust in our own homes. We can limit our exposure from the products we buy, but we cannot shut ourselves off from the environment and as background levels rise, so too does our own exposure. 

Studies have shown links between PFAS exposure and a wide range of human health concerns, from growth, learning, and behavioural problems, to cancer, immune system disorders, fertility issues and obesity 35, 36, 37,38[35] Liu G, Dhana K, Furtado JD, Rood J, Zong G, Liang L, Qi L, Bray GA, DeJonge L, Coull B and others. Perfluoroalkyl substances and changes in body weight and resting metabolic rate in response to weight-loss diets: A prospective study. PLOS Medicine 2018;15(2):e1002502.

[36] Saikat S, Kreis I, Davies B, Bridgman S, Kamanyire R. The impact of PFOS on health in the general population: a review. Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts 2013;15(2):329-335.

[37] Chunyuan F, McLaughlin JK, Tarone RE, Olsen J, xf, rn. Perfluorinated Chemicals and Fetal Growth: A Study within the Danish National Birth Cohort. Environmental Health Perspectives 2007;115(11):1677-1682.

[38] Melzer D, Rice N, Depledge MH, Henley WE, Galloway TS. Association between Serum Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Thyroid Disease in the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Environmental Health Perspectives 2010;118(5):686-692.
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One of the largest epidemiological studies ever carried out was done as a result of a class action lawsuit against US chemical company DuPont. The ‘C8 Science Panel‘ collected blood samples from almost 70,000 people whose drinking water had been contaminated with PFOA, taking almost seven years to ensure their conclusions were correct and couldn’t be refuted in a court of law. The results proved links between PFOA exposure and six specific conditions, which include:

  • high cholesterol;
  • ulcerative colitis;
  • thyroid disease;
  • testicular cancer;
  • kidney cancer; and
  • pregnancy-induced hypertension.

In the EU, official classifications for PFOA and PFOS include ‘carcinogenic’ (Cat2, suspected human carcinogens), ‘reprotoxic’ (Cat 1B, presumed human reproductive toxicants), ‘Lact’ (may cause harm to breast-fed children), and ‘toxic to specific organs’ (liver) 39[39] www.echa.europa.eu/information-on-chemicals.

However, the toxicity of the vast majority of PFAS, which are increasingly used as alternatives to these restricted substances, are still largely unknown.  

A key switch that many manufacturers have made in recent years, in response to growing evidence of the harmful effects of PFAS, is to move from their original formulations to ‘short-chain’ (sometimes known as ‘C6’) versions. These alternatives weren’t proven to be safe prior to use, they simply hadn’t been proven unsafe, and that’s a very important distinction. There is now growing evidence that these ‘short-chain’ alternatives could be just as persistent and toxic as the ones they replaced. Industry simply replaces the devil we know, with the devil we don’t.

Find out more about this type of ‘regrettable substitution’ in our blog post on GenX, the original replacement for PFOA that is now considered a ‘substance of very high concern’, or by reading up on PFHxS, which is now in consideration for a global ban under the Stockholm convention.