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.

Zürich Statement warns unregulated PFASs on the market are ‘a long-term concern’

Scientists and regulators from around the world warn that human and environmental exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) will be a long-term source of concern due to the persistence of these widely used chemicals. The group of 50 international scientists and policy makers have called for collaboration on new approaches for assessing and managing highly persistent chemicals like PFASs.  Their report highlights that over 4,000 unique PFASs have been used in technical applications and consumer products, and while some PFASs, such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), have been investigated extensively and regulated, there is still limited or missing information about the current uses and hazards for many other PFASs.  

Over 50 international scientists and policymakers came together in November 2017 to discuss the need to find common ground and goals regarding how the science-policy interface of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) can be strengthened. This meeting resulted in a series of recommended Future Actions, as highlighted in their communications brief 

Attendees noted that due to the stable thermal and chemical properties of PFASs, they are still being used as a surface protector in a wide range of products such as food contact materials, textiles, fire-fighting foams, cosmetics and electronics. Yet since PFAS was found in wildlife and human blood samples there has been an exponential growth of research on PFASs since the early 2000s. A number of scientists, regulators and organisations are now demanding that there is an “effective and efficient assessment and management of overlooked PFASs”.  

Their report calls for PFASs to be looked at as a group rather than individual chemicals, due to the similar characteristics of all PFASs. The majority of participants call for there to be more available information regarding the use, alternatives to, and current and future emission sites of PFASs, which, whilst unregulated, is not easy to measure.  

As a result of the pervasiveness of PFASs in consumer goods, the group called for clearer labelling on products. Detailing their PFAS content or ‘footprint’ will allow consumers and retailers to make fully informed choices regarding the products they purchase or promote. 

A key outcome of this meeting was that there needs to be a collaborative effort to “reduce, and eventually phase out, nonessential uses of PFASs”, with further research into safer alternatives. To be able to do this effectively, it was agreed that considerably more communication, similar to the workshops that took place in November, is required between both science and policy communities to continue these discussions.  

Read more:  Environmental Health Perspectives paper 

types of pfas diagram
PFAS is not a chemical, but a term used to describe a whole group of chemicals which have a similar molecular structure, or ‘carbon chain’, and a specific element, ‘fluorine’. There are more than 3000 types of PFAS commercially available on the world market today.