What are Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of human-made chemicals that were created for a variety of household and industrial uses. PFAS can repel oil, grease, and water, so they have been used in protective coatings for many different products including food packaging, nonstick cookware, carpets and upholstery (stain-protectants), mattresses and clothing (water-proofing), and have also been used in fire-fighting foams. Some of the more commonly known PFAS are perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). GenX chemicals are considered a replacement for PFOA and PFBS is considered a replacement for PFOS.
Who is exposed to PFAS?
Anyone can be exposed to PFAS. Ingestion is the primary route of exposure to PFAS for the general public. This can be due to food that has been stored or cooked in materials containing PFAS, by eating contaminated fish and shellfish, or by drinking contaminated water. People who live near PFAS production facilities or places where PFAS-containing firefighting foams were used are at higher risk of exposure from groundwater contamination.
How can PFAS affect my health?
Health effects from exposure to low levels of PFAS are not well known, but may include elevated cholesterol levels, interference with thyroid function, preeclampsia, and decreased fertility. PFAS may also affect the immune system and a developing fetus or child. Animals exposed to high doses of some PFAS have shown changes in the liver, thyroid, and pancreatic function, as well as some changes in hormone levels.
How likely are PFAS to cause cancer?
Some studies have found increases in prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers in workers exposed to PFAS and people living near a PFAS production facility. Findings from other cancer studies report otherwise or are inconsistent.
How can PFAS affect children?
PFAS may affect growth, learning, and behavior in infants and older children.
Is there a medical test to show whether I have been exposed to PFAS?
PFAS can be measured in blood, but this test is not commonly performed in doctor’s offices, and the results of such tests would not predict health outcomes.
How can I reduce my exposure to PFAS?
Filters containing activated carbon or reverse osmosis membranes have been shown to effectively remove PFAS from drinking water. You can further reduce your exposure by avoiding products that contain PFAS or eating food that was packaged in materials that contain PFAS. PFAS can be found in some grease-resistant food wrappers or boxes, microwave popcorn bags, stain-resistant coatings on carpets and upholstery, water-resistant clothing, personal care products, and cosmetics.
Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?
In March 2023, EPA proposed a new National Primary Drinking Water Regulation for six PFAS (PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS, and GenX chemicals) that would set maximum concentrations for these chemicals in drinking water. Drinking water systems would be required to test for these chemicals, report results to consumers, and reduce concentrations in treated water if they were found to exceed the standard. If the regulation goes forward it will likely be finalized by the end of 2023.
Where can I get more information?
PFAS are a topic of current research by public health agencies. You can get more information at the following pages:
- VDH Guidance on PFAS and Private Wells
- ATSDR’s Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) and Your Health
- EPA’s Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)
- NIOSH Workplace Safety and Health Topics: Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)