Perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS)
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a large family 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 PFAS are also easily transported in the environment covering long distances away from the source of their release.
PFAS 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.
PFAS have a wide range of different physical and chemical properties. They can be gases, liquids, or solid high-molecular weight polymers. They are sometimes described as long-chain and short-chain as a way to group PFAS that may behave similarly in the environment. PFAS are also grouped into subgroups in various other ways based on their structure.
PFAS 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 PFAS include aerospace and defence, automotive, aviation, 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 PFAS with shorter-chain PFAS or with non-fluorinated substances. This trend has been driven by the fact that the undesired effects of long-chain PFAS on human health and the environment were assessed and recognised first by scientists and authorities around the globe. Short-chain PFAS can also have similar or other properties of concern.
All PFAS 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 PFAS continue to be released to the environment, humans and other species will be exposed to ever greater concentrations of PFAS. Even if all releases of PFAS 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 PFAS are known to accumulate in the bodies of living things and cause toxic effects. Certain PFAS are toxic for reproduction and can harm the development of foetuses. Several PFAS have been demonstrated to cause cancer. Some PFAS are also suspected of interfering with the human endocrine (hormonal) system, but testing in this area is ongoing.
PFAS are released into the environment from direct and indirect sources, for example, from professional and industrial facilities using PFAS, 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.
- perfluorononan-1-oic acid (PFNA);
- nonadecafluorodecanoic acid (PFDA);
- henicosafluoroundecanoic acid (PFUnDA);
- tricosafluorododecanoic acid (PFDoDA);
- pentacosafluorotridecanoic acid (PFTrDA); and
- heptacosafluorotetradecanoic acid (PFTDA).
- 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.
- 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.
How is the EU making sure PFAS chemicals don’t stick around?
Podcast: interview with Bjorn Hansen, ECHA's Executive Director
Where exactly are PFAS used, what are the concerns and what is the EU doing about them? Listen to our podcast to find out.
Listen to the full podcast:
- 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
- EFSA’s PFAS public consultation
- 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’
- Elements for an EU-strategy for PFASs [PDF]
- 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)