Perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS)
Perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS)
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) are a large class of thousands of synthetic chemicals that are widely used throughout society and found in the environment.
They all contain carbon-fluorine bonds, which are one of the strongest chemical bonds in organic chemistry. This means that they resist degradation when used and also in the environment. Most PFASs are also easily transported in the environment covering long distances away from the source of their release.
PFASs have been frequently observed to contaminate groundwater, surface water and soil. Cleaning up polluted sites is technically difficult and costly. If releases continue, they will continue to accumulate in the environment, drinking water and food.
PFASs have a wide range of different physical and chemical properties. They can be gases, liquids, or solid high-molecular weight polymers. Some PFASs are described as long-chain or short-chain molecules, but this does not cover all of the different structures in the PFAS class. PFASs can also be sub-grouped in other ways based on their structure.
PFASs are widely used as they have unique desirable properties. For instance, they are stable under intense heat. Many of them also have surfactant properties and function, e.g. as water and grease repellents.
Some of the major industry sectors using PFASs include aerospace and defence, automotive, aviation, food contact materials, textiles, leather and apparel, construction and household products, electronics, fire-fighting, food processing, and medical articles.
Over the past decades, global manufacturers have started to substitute long-chain PFASs with other PFASs or with fluorine-free substances. This trend has been driven by the fact that the harmful effects of long-chain PFAS on human health and the environment were the first that were recognised by scientists and governments around the globe. As the focus shifted to other PFASs these were also found to have properties of concern.
All PFASs are highly persistent in the environment. In fact, they are known to persist in the environment longer than any other man-made substance. As a consequence of this persistence, as long as PFASs continue to be released to the environment, humans and other species will be exposed to ever greater concentrations of PFASs. Even if all releases of PFASs would cease tomorrow, they would continue to be present in the environment, and humans, for generations to come.
Their release and mobility in water and air causes contamination to groundwater and drinking water, which is difficult and costly to avoid. Certain PFASs are known to accumulate in living things and cause toxic effects. Certain PFASs are toxic for reproduction and can harm the development of foetuses. Several PFASs may cause cancer in humans. Some PFASs are also suspected of interfering with the human endocrine (hormonal) system.
PFASs are released into the environment from direct and indirect sources, for example, from professional and industrial facilities using PFASs, during use of consumer products (e.g. cosmetics, ski waxes or clothing) and from food contact materials. Humans can be exposed to them every day at home, in their workplace and through the environment, for example, from the food they eat and drinking water.
Furthermore, ECHA submitted in January 2022 a restriction proposal for PFASs used in firefighting foams. A consultation on this proposal is open from 23 March until 23 September 2022. This use is not included in the wider PFAS restriction being prepared by the five European countries.
- 2,3,3,3-tetrafluoro-2-(heptafluoropropoxy)propionic acid, its salts and its acyl halides (HFPO-DA), a short-chain PFAS substitute for PFOA in fluoropolymer production, was the first substance added to the Candidate List. Its ammonium salt is commonly known as GenX. [General Court judgment]
- perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS) and its salts, a replacement of PFOS.
- perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA);
- ammonium pentadecafluorooctanoate (APFO);
- perfluorononan-1-oic acid (PFNA) and its sodium and ammonium salts;
- nonadecafluorodecanoic acid (PFDA) and its sodium and ammonium salts.
Video on the European ban on PFASs prepared by the The Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM). Five European states are expected to submit their proposal to restrict all PFASs in the EU by 13 January 2023. Copyright: RIVM.
- Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)
- Substances restricted under REACH
- Candidate List of substances of very high concern for Authorisation
- Authorisation List
- Community Rolling Action Plan
- Harmonised classification and labelling
- Addressing substances of concern
- Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability
- Commission staff working document: Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)
- EFSA's PFAS draft opinion explained
- Commission welcomes provisional agreement to improve the quality of drinking water and the access to it
- Chemical pollutants — restrictions on perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)
- EEA: Emerging chemical risks in Europe — ‘PFAS’
- European Environmental Bureau's PFAS page
- New study shows: One-year-old children demonstrate lower concentration of vaccine antibodies with high PFOA concentration in the blood [PDF] [EN]
- German Environment Agency: "Potential SVHC in environment and articles – information collection with the aim to prepare restriction proposals for PFAS”
- OECD: Portal on Per and Poly Fluorinated Chemicals
- US EPA: Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)
- Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council (ITRC)