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. 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are PFAS and should I be concerned?

PFAS stands for per- or poly-fluorinated alkyl substances. They are a group of industrial chemicals widely used in everyday products from food packaging to bike oil, and now widespread throughout our natural environment. Many PFAS are known to cause harm to both the environment and human health.

We at Fidra, alongside many other NGOs and over 250 scientists who have signed ‘The Madrid Statement’ documenting the scientific consensus on PFAS, are concerned. We are concerned about the toxicity of PFAS, its effects on our health and our environment, and its continued and unrelenting use in so many of our industrial processes and consumer products.

Is PFAS known by any other names?

You may have heard of PFCs or perfluorinated compounds. You may have noticed labels and bought waterproofs labelled as PFC-free. The acronym PFC is poorly defined in the scientific literature and is often used interchangeably with the term PFAS. Whilst we continue to argue over terminology, the important thing to remember is that buying items labelled PFC-free is the right thing to do!

You might have heard of Teflon? Maybe you have Teflon frying pans in your kitchen, or bought clothes treated with a Teflon Stain Protector. Most Teflon, unless otherwise stated, is a brand name that implies PFAS.

Do you look for bike oils that contain PTFE or maybe you associate it with non-stick cookware? PTFE, or Polytetrafluoroethylene, is also a common form of polymer PFAS.

You may have seen social media campaigns or heard NGO warnings of ‘Forever Chemicals’. PFAS are the forever chemicals, named for their extreme persistence in the environment. Once PFAS is produced, they are very hard to breakdown and can remain in our environment, moving and causing harm, for thousands of years.

The confusing terminology doesn’t end with the group name. Specific chemicals within the group often have multiple names. For examples, PFOA, a well-known and well-studied PFAS, is often referred to as C8. PFOS and GenX are other commonly discussed members of the PFAS group.

Why are PFAS bad for the environment?

PFAS can harm wildlife. The direct link between PFAS contamination and population decline in wildlife can be difficult to prove as studies have to take account of a wide variety of contributing factors, including other chemical pollutants, climate change and natural population fluctuations. However, we have mounting evidence from both lab experiments and wildlife studies to show that many PFAS cause harm, both at the individual level, and in the overall reproductive and survival rates of wildlife populations.

PFAS are persistent and mobile. Often referred to as the ‘Forever Chemicals’, PFAS do not easily breakdown. Once they enter our environment, they move and they accumulate, but they don’t go away. The PFAS being made, used and thrown away today have the potential to continue polluting our environment for thousands of years.

Find more information on the environmental consequences of PFAS pollution here.

I have a PFAS coated non-stick pan, and a PFAS treated jacket, will these harm my health?

The PFAS used to create non-stick, stain-resistant and water-proof coatings are usually based on ‘polymer PFAS’, e.g. PTFE. These are very large molecules that are generally considered to be too large to be taken up by the cells in our bodies. For this reason, they are generally considered safe for personal use.

However, there may be a risk of these large and stable molecules breaking down to more harmful, ‘non-polymer’ PFAS under certain conditions, for example from when a pan’s surface is damaged or scratched, or when food is cooked at an excessively high heat. Inhalation of PFAS fumes under these conditions is thought to cause Polymer Fume Fever (Reference: doi: 10.1136/bcr-2012-007790), sometimes known as ‘Teflon Flu’; presenting as flu-like symptoms that resolve within 12-24 hours.

Of greater concern is the release of harmful PFAS during the production and manufacture of these polymer treatments/coatings, or as the products breakdown after disposal. For example, PFOA (C8), a well-studied and known toxic PFAS, was a key ingredient in the production of these polymers. The DuPont factory in Parkersburg, West Virginia, where PFAS was used to produce Teflon, is a major source of both localised and wide-spread PFAS pollution. Once the toxicity of PFOA (C8) was well established, a new set of chemicals known as GenX were developed as an alternative. These are also PFAS and are now also known to be extremely harmful to humans and to our environment.

Find more information about the effects of PFAS exposure to human health here.

Should I avoid fluoride toothpaste? Is the fluoride in my toothpaste a PFAS and should I avoid it?

The fluoride in your toothpaste is different to PFAS chemicals.

Whilst some toothpastes may contain PFAS, this is not linked to the fluoride content that is labelled on the front of your toothpaste tube. Fluoride added to toothpaste with the intention to strengthen dental enamel, e.g. sodium fluoride (NaF) or sodium fluorophosphate (Na2PO3F), is not a PFAS and is not linked to the health and environmental effects discussed on this website.

I don’t think I’ve ever bought anything labelled PFAS, is this relevant to me?

They are unlikely to be labelled, but it is very likely you have products in your home, your shopping basket and your lunch tray that contain PFAS.

Given the oil and water-repellent properties of PFAS, and their wide use as non-stick and lubricating agents, PFAS are found in many of our everyday products. Common items containing hidden PFAS are water-proof clothing and shoes, stain-resistant school uniforms and office shirts, grease-proof baking paper and cardboard food packaging. PFAS is also in bike oils, ski waxes, paints, cleaning products, make-up and shampoos.

You can learn more about which products have PFAS in them and why, here.

But don’t panic! Some companies understand the risks associated with PFAS and avoid using these chemicals in their products. Check out our list of PFASfree products here.

What can I do?

More brands are moving away from using PFAS in their products, due to the health and environmental concerns surrounding these chemicals.

As a consumer, choosing PFASfree options is a powerful way to show retailers you want to buy products which do not inflict harm on others. Think of it as voting with your money. For help and inspiration, look at our list of PFASfree products and businesses, here.

At Fidra we understand that it can be hard to find PFASfree products, or understand which ones are safer to use. We are calling for retailers to take PFAS products off their shelves and provide us with safer PFAS free products which reduces the levels of harm inflicted on communities and ecosystems all around the world.