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.

Why are PFAS used in our products?

The widespread use of PFAS comes down to a few key chemical characteristics. PFAS are found in too many products to list, so understanding the key characteristics that make them attractive to manufacturers, alongside the examples listed below, will hopefully help you to start recognising where they might be found in the products you buy:

They repel water and oil

By changing the surface tension of liquids which come in contact with them, treatments containing PFAS make liquids ‘bead’ rather than ‘spread out’. When liquids bead, they run off rather than sitting and soaking in. This is one way of making fabric waterproof without having to completely seal it and was the traditional method for making outdoor clothing ‘water-repellent’ whilst still being breathable. PFAS-based treatments also effectively repel oil. This can be useful for stain resistance and for food packaging, to prevent grease and liquids from soaking in and weakening the material.

Fidra are currently working on a project to better understand just how widespread the use of PFAS is in UK food packaging. To do this, we’re asking you at home to get involved and help us ‘Find the PFAS’ using a simple, homemade test. Click here to find out more.

clothing with pfas
Outdoor clothing
Outdoor equipment
Outdoor equipment
Stain resistant clothing
Stain resistant clothing
Stain resistant furniture and furnishings
Stain resistant furniture & furnishings
Grease proof take-away packaging
Grease proof take-away packaging

They make things slippery

One specific type of PFAS called PTFE is really, really slippery. In fact, it is one of the most slippery materials known. Discovered by accident in 1938, DuPont branded the substance Teflon and opened the world’s first full commercial plant near Parkersburg, West Virginia, in 1950. The rest is history. Teflon is now a well known brand name in many people’s kitchens. But the applications of ‘slippery’ don’t end on your non-stick pans. PFAS has been used to take seconds off skiers race times, cascading from the technical ski waxes designed for elite athletes, to its unnecessary use across amateur snow sports where most skiers and snowboarders are oblivious to its perceived benefits. PTFE is also a common ingredient in many oils and lubricants, applied liberally to bike chains the world over, only to be washed off in a rain shower and reapplied again the very next morning.

Non-stick cookware
Non-stick cookware
Baking paper and baking cases
Baking paper & baking cases
Ski and snowboard wax
Ski & snowboard wax
Bike oil
Bike oil

They are surfactants – they help liquids to mix and spread

Surfactants are used to help liquids, such as cleaning products, mix more effectively. They also improve spreading, levelling and foam control. In practise, this creates a cheap method to ensure formulations spread easily, in everything from wall paints and floor polishes, to make-up and beauty creams.

Paints adhesives and sealants
Paints adhesives & sealants
Cosmetics
Cosmetics
Cleaning products
Cleaning products

They are also used for many non-consumer functions

Linked to the properties mentioned above, PFAS have found many uses beyond consumer products. A key example is in fire-fighting foams, which represent major sources of environmental PFAS pollution, concentrated around airports, military bases and fire training centres. Whilst progress towards change has been slow, PFAS free alternatives are now in use across many major international airports, making this an increasingly unnecessary, and therefore solvable, source of pollution. Traces of PFAS are also found on many plastic products, not as an intentionally added ingredient, but left over from manufacturing processes, e.g. on aritifical turf, where PFAS is used as a lubricant in the plastic manufacture.

Fire-fighting foam
Industrial processing aids
Industrial processing aids