PFAS are a group of persistent manmade chemicals that are gaining a lot of attention. They are virtually everywhere. Our lifestyles have been intertwined with the use of these chemicals since the 1940’s. They have been used for manufacturing everyday products such as household cleaning products, protective coatings for textiles, stain-resistant carpeting, firefighting foams, cosmetics, non-stick cookware, personal care products and even dental floss… to make it glide better.
PFAS are referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ because they take a very long time to go away. They are formed by a manmade bond between carbon and fluorine which is very difficult to break.
Due to decades of the production, transport, use and disposal of these synthetic substances, PFAS have been distributed worldwide into earth, water and living organisms.
Even though manufacturers in Canada and the U.S.A. have phased out the use of many of these chemicals over the past two decades, PFAS linger in the environment. Consequently, we are re-exposed to them through food, air and water. They bio-accumulate in our bodies, even as we try to eliminate them, due to repeated exposure.
The presence of PFAS is measured in parts per trillion. That’s tiny! They have only become detectible in recent years due to improved instrumentation for testing. We can now detect PFAS levels in human blood.
The acronyms for these chemicals are confusing. However, their abbreviations are a LOT easier to remember than the full chemical names! Here is our attempt to distinguish between them:
PFAS is the name of this entire group of synthetic chemicals that are found in soil, air, food, water & living organisms.
PFAS = Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (the entire group)
PFOS and PFOA are the most mentioned individual chemicals within this group.
PFOS = Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (a specific chemical compound within the PFAS group)
PFOA = Perfluorooctanoic Acid (a specific chemical compound within the PFAS group)
Research, regulation, and international concern
Currently there is a lot of research and concern about this group of chemicals. Regulation and restrictions to their use are now increasingly in effect. However, there are still many unknowns about their behaviour and health effects when combined with other chemicals.
Health Canada and the Environmental Protection Agency (USA) repeatedly attempt to determine what level of exposure to PFAS is acceptable for human consumption (the answer is surely zero!), and to set limits to the quantities allowed in drinking water.
The problem is the gap between what should be done and what is tolerated by human habit and commercial interests.
Meanwhile, the residue of these substances persists from decades of previous use.
PFAS can be measured in our bloodstream. They disrupt the functioning of, and accumulate in, our liver, kidneys and thyroid.
Health effects may include increased risk of cancer, hormone disruption, reproductive and developmental issues and damage to the immune system.
Particularly of concern is transference from mother to infant via the placenta and breast milk.
PFAS are always found in chemical mixtures, which complicates health effects. They are very bio accumulative and slow to be released from the body. It is estimated that exposure from water requires three years for half to be eliminated, plus there is ongoing exposure.
Exposure routes into the body
Oral exposure: Ingestion of PFAS is reported to be the predominant pathway into the body.
Dermal exposure: Absorption of PFAS through skin is believed to be relatively low.
Inhalation exposure: Breathing in PFAS in fine water droplets is expected to be infrequent, short, and involve small amounts.
Health Canada says: ‘People are exposed to PFAS mainly through food, drinking water and house dust. For infants, toddlers and children, hand-to-mouth contact with consumer textile products may be a significant source of exposure.’
How to limit your exposure to PFAS
Completely avoiding PFAS is practically impossible. However, here are some ways to reduce your exposure:
Avoid water and stain-repellent carpeting and household textiles, such as curtains, furniture upholstery, bedding, tablecloths, and napkins.
Avoid purchasing ‘waterproof’, ‘water-resistant’, and ‘stain-resistant’ goods and ‘anti-fog’ eyeglass sprays and wipes.
Avoid food packaged in greaseproof bags (microwave popcorn) or containers. Use your own glass containers for takeout.
Use BPI-certified compostable containers. Not all compostable packaging is PFAS-free.
Cook with stainless steel, cast iron, glass, or ceramic cookware instead of non-stick options.
Read personal care product and cosmetic labeling carefully to avoid any with “perfluor-,” “polyfluor-,” “PTFE,” or Teflon on the label. Even ‘green’ cosmetics may contain PFAS.
If you buy bottled water, select ‘purified’ water rather than spring water.
Use and properly maintain a water filter that has certified performance data for the removal of PFAS.
Beware of PFAS alternatives
‘Safer substitutes’ are currently utilized or under consideration by many manufacturers. However, the most common substitutes for PFAS are other PFAS chemicals.
PFOA is an example. Labels claiming PFOA-free don't necessarily mean cookware is safe.
Although PFOA has been phased out in the U.S. and Canada, non-stick cookware still contains alternatives that may be harmful to health. PFAS-free is the safest choice.
Communities with higher risk of exposure
Higher blood levels occur in communities where local water supplies have been contaminated by PFAS. Exposure to PFAS in the workplace can also elevate these levels. Firefighters are particularly at risk.
Other workplaces that may be sources of PFAS contamination for workers and the environment are airports, military bases, textile mills, gas stations, chemical manufacturers, commercial printers, plastics and resin manufacturing sites, paint and coating manufacturers, semiconductor manufacturers, makers of metal products and electrical components, electroplating and polishing.
Landfills, waste disposal facilities, sewage and wastewater treatment plants are other common sources of contamination.
Nearby communities may experience groundwater and drinking water contamination because of their proximity to these facilities.
Health Canada and PFAS
Since 2012, the introduction of new sources of PFOA and PFOS (the most commonly occurring PFAS) are prohibited in Canada.
Canada’s guidelines for PFAS in drinking water are undergoing a review (first quarter of 2023). Currently, the Canadian drinking water guidelines for two of these substances are:
PFOS - maximum acceptable concentration (MAC) of 0.0006 mg/L (0.6 µg/L)
PFOA - maximum acceptable concentration (MAC) of 0.0002 mg/L (0.2 μg/L)
EPA and PFAS
In June 2022, the EPA (USA) lowered acceptable levels for PFOA from 70 ppt to 0.004 ppt (parts per trillion) and lowered acceptable levels of PFOS to 0.02 ppt (parts per trillion). In March 2023, the EPA proposed a rule that will set the first National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NDPWR) for six different (PFAS) in the USA, including a Maximum Contaminant Level of 4 ppt and MCL Goal of zero for two of the many PFAS chemicals—PFOA and PFOS.
WHO and PFAS
In September 2022, the WHO acceptable levels for PFOA & PFOS became 100 ppt (parts per trillion).
PFAS and Developmental and Reproductive Toxicity: An EWG Fact Sheet https://www.ewg.org/sites/default/files/u352/EWG_PFAS_Toxicity_C02.pdf?_ga=2.17131065.1402923352.1574311559-2079106811.1565626014
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/pfas/default.html
Bottled water A 2021 study found 39 out of 100 bottled waters tested in the US contained PFAS. The US Food and Drug Administration has not set PFAS limits for bottled water. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0043135421004905?dgcid=rss_sd_all