Separating the Science from the Rumors about PFAS

Author: Blair Paulik, PhD Published: April 30, 2019

You may have heard of “PFAS” in a documentary or in the news recently. You may have also heard that PFAS chemicals are in drinking water and in people’s blood in the United States. And you would be right to say—what!? How can this be? Below are some important things to keep in mind as you react to new information and news in the media about PFAS.

This article should help you understand what the presence of PFAS means for our health and the environment—and, perhaps more importantly, what it doesn’t mean.

Defining “PFAS” 

●  The term “PFAS” refers to a large group of chemicals, not just one chemical. It is an acronym that stands for both poly- and per-fluoroalkyl substances. There are many chemicals in this group, and, like any big group, each of the PFAS chemicals has unique properties. This means that what we know about one PFAS chemical may or may not be true for the others.

●  PFAS chemicals are not new. They are man-made and were originally branded as “Scotchgard” in the 1940s. We have been using them ever since, in a wide variety of products. Some of the best-known uses for PFAS chemicals are in aqueous fire fighting foams and in non-stick coatings such as Teflon. PFAS chemicals are also used in various other products integrated in our society, including fast food wrappers, chrome plating for airplanes, waterproof coatings in raingear (think Gore-Tex), and stain-resistant treatments in carpets and other fabrics.

●  PFAS chemicals have a combination of chemical properties that make them stay in water in the environment for long periods of time without breaking down. Because they are in many products that people use regularly, they are everywhere in the environment. They are chemically stable, so once they are in the environment, they take a very long time to break down. We refer to PFAS chemicals as being “persistent” in contrast to many other common organic contaminants. PFAS chemicals are also water soluble, unlike many other common chemicals (for example: dioxins, DDT, or PCBs). This combination of environmental persistence and water-affinity means that PFAS chemicals are widely distributed in surface and groundwater, they don’t break down, and they migrate and present a threat to our drinking water and aquatic habitats.

●  In addition to their environmental persistence, some PFAS chemicals accumulate in humans’ and animals’ bodies over time. We refer to this as PFAS chemicals “bioaccumulating.” This explains the presence of PFAS chemicals in people’s blood.

Determining Impacts on Human Health

Many people have been displeased to learn that PFAS chemicals are present in their drinking water or in their blood. This is understandable, especially in the absence of meaningful context for this information. However, it is important to know that toxicological science has not come to a strong consensus on the toxicity of the PFAS chemicals that have been studied. So, at this time, we can’t really compare how toxic PFAS chemicals are relative to other chemicals. The jury is still out about how concerned we should be about PFAS chemicals affecting our health. More studies are necessary to develop the true weight of the evidence needed to really understand the toxicity of PFAS chemicals.

Regulations Past, Present, and Future

Even with limited information on PFAS toxicity, PFAS regulations have already begun to increase, and more regulations are on the way. The USEPA recently released an action plan on PFAS regulation. The plan states the USEPA intends to develop maximum contaminant limits for two of the most focal PFAS chemicals: PFOA and PFOS. The State of Washington also has an action plan for addressing PFAS chemicals soon. Washington’s plan includes testing drinking water, developing cleanup levels, investigating effective cleanup methods, and restricting the sale of PFAS-containing products. Additionally, the Portland Water Bureau is taking steps to prevent Portland’s drinking water from being contaminated with PFAS chemicals, including monitoring groundwater, identifying sources of PFAS chemicals to the environment, and regulating and providing technical assistance to facilities that manage hazardous materials. It is likely PFAS will become increasingly prominent on the environmental cleanup radar for the foreseeable future.

Blair Paulik, PhD

Project Toxicologist/Environmental Scientist

(971) 277-0573