Found in

Stain-resistant and waterproof textiles; carpet and textile cleaning products; non-stick cookware; grease-resistant food packaging coatings e.g. pizza boxes, fast food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags.

Health Effects

Effects on reproduction and development; thyroid disease; possibly obesity; hormone disruption; possible kidney, testicular cancer; reduced immune response to vaccines in children.

More Details

PFASs are a class of chemicals used to greaseproof or waterproof consumer products including non-stick cookware, outdoor apparel and food packaging, such as pizza boxes, fast food wrappers and popcorn bags. They are also used in electronics, firefighting foam, and chemical manufacturing. The most well-known PFASs are PFOA and PFOS. Both have been phased out of production in the United States in recent years.[1]  However, they are still used and manufactured in other countries, and may be imported to the US in consumer products. These highly fluorinated chemicals are extremely persistent in the environment and in the human body. Studies demonstrate that PFOA and PFOS are linked to multiple health effects such as liver and metabolic toxicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity, tumor induction, immunotoxicity, endocrine disruption and neurotoxicity.[i] Data on human health effects of other PFASs is scarce, but animal studies suggest they may have similar toxic effects.

Long chained PFASs (PFOS and PFOA) are linked to increased risk for thyroid disease in adults[ii] and decreased immune response to vaccines in children.[iii]  In addition higher levels of PFOA in blood is associated with obesity in children.[iv] PFOA exposure is associated with kidney and testicular cancer in animals and has also been linked to higher incidence of these cancers among adults living near a chemical plant.[v]

While most products in the United States no longer contain PFOA or PFOS (“long-chained” PFASs), these chemicals have been replaced with “short-chained” PFASs. These replacement chemicals have been touted as being safer than PFOA or PFOS but new data suggest that short-chained PFASs may have some of the same health effects as the chemicals they are replacing.

The ability of PFASs to repel water and grease comes from their multiple carbon-fluorine bonds. Due to the strength of the carbon-fluorine bond, PFASs are persistent in the environment. PFASs have no known degradation pathways in the environment[vi] meaning that they stay in surface water,[vii] groundwater,[viii] wildlife[ix] and people[x] and are passed down through generations from mother to child through umbilical cord blood and breastfeeding.[xi] These chemicals move throughout the globe as a result of human use and end up in areas such as the arctic[xii], remote wildlife areas, and the open oceans.

One commonly cited benefit of short-chain PFASs is that are less bioaccumulative than long-chained PFASs. However, while they may not bioaccumulate as much in blood, one study has detected short-chain PFASs in human organs suggesting that we do not fully understand if humans are able to eliminate these chemicals.[xiii] Additionally, studies have shown that short-chained PFASs are persistent (i.e. they do not breakdown) in the environment, another similarity to the long-chained PFAS.[xiv] A recent study also suggests that exposure to short-chained PFASs can lead to endocrine disruption in pregnant women and their fetuses.[xv] Finally, recent studies have shown that there is disproportionate transfer of short-chain PFASs through umbilical cord blood to newborns.[xvi]

There is a lack of health risk information on most of the more than 3,000 PFASs intentionally used in products. While studies of short-chained PFASs are emerging, the evidence thus far is not promising. For this reason, leading scientists are calling on “the international community to cooperate in limiting the production and use of PFASs and in developing safer non-fluorinated alternatives.”[xvii]


[1] According to the EPA, “The manufacture and import of PFOA has been phased out in the United States as part of the PFOA Stewardship Program.” The EPA notes there may be PFOA in some imported articles.

1.          Strynar M, U.S. EPA, Per- and Polyfluorinated Compounds: Health and Environmental Impacts. Webinar April 19, 2017.

2.          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. Environ Health Perspect. 2010;118(5):686-92.

3.          Grandjean P, Andersen EW, Budtz-Jorgensen E, Nielsen F, et al. Serum vaccine antibody concentrations in children exposed to perfluorinated compounds. JAMA. 2012;307(4):391-97.

4.          Braun JM, Chen A, Romano ME, Calafat AM et al. Prenatal perfluoroalkyl substance exposure and child adiposity at 8 years of age: The HOME study. Obesity. 2016;24(1):231-37.

5.          Vaughn B, Winquist A, Steenland K. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) exposure and incident cancers among adults living near a chemical plant. Environ Health Perspectives. 2013;121(11-12):1313-18.

6.          Vecitis CD, Park H, Cheng J, Mader BT. Treatment technologies for aqueous perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoate (PFOA). Front. Environ. Sci. Eng. China 2009;3:129-51.

7.          Meyer T, De Silva A.O, Spencer C, Wania F. Fate of perfluorinated carboxylates and sulfonates during snowmelt within an urban watershed. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2011;45:8113-8119.

8.          Murakami M, Kuroda K, Sato N, Fukushi T et al. Groundwater pollution by perfluorinated surfactants in Tokyo. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2009;43:3480-86.

9.          Houde M, De Silva AO, Muir DCG, Letcher RJ. Monitoring of perfluorinated compounds in aquatic biota: an updated review. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2011;45:7962-73.

10.      Houde M, Martin JW, Letcher RJ, Solomon KR, Muir DCG. Biological monitoring of polyfluoroalkyl substances: a review. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2006;40:3463-73.

11.      Haug LS, Huber S, Becher G, Thomsen C. Characterization of human exposure pathways to perfluorinated compounds – comparing exposure estimates with biomarkers of exposure. Env. Int. 2011;37:687-93.

12.      Casal P, et al. Accumulation of Perfluoroalkylated Substances in Oceanic Plankton. Environmental Science & Technology. 2017;51(5):2766-75.

13.      Perez F, Nadal M, Navarro-Ortega A, Fabrega F, et al. Accumulation of perfluoroalkyl substances in human tissues. Environment International. 2013;59:354-62.

14.      Danish Ministry of the Environment, Environmental Protection Agency, Short-chain Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS), 2015.

15.      Gorrochategui E, Pérez-Albaladejo E, Casas J, Lacorte S, Porte C. Perfluorinated chemicals: Differential toxicity, inhibition of aromatase activity and alteration of cellular lipids in human placental cells. Toxicology & Applied Pharmacology. 2014;277(2):124-30.

16.      Gutzkow KB, Haug LS, Thomsen C, Sabaredzovic A, et al. Placental transfer of perfluorinated compounds is selective - A Norwegian mother and child sub-cohort study. Int. J. Hygiene and Environ. Health. 2012;215:216-19.

17.      Blum A, Balan SA, Scheringer M, Trier X et al. The Madrid statement on poly- and perfluorinated substances (PFASs). Environ Health Perspectives. 2015;123(5):A107-11.

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