What Are PFAS?

Scores of everyday consumer products contain a class of toxic fluorinated chemicals called PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). These chemicals include thousands of different substances, such as perfluorooctanoic acid (“PFOA”), perfluorooctanesulfonic (“PFOS”), and GenX (a trademark name for a PFAS chemical and chemical process). Manufacturers use PFAS chemicals to produce a wide variety industrial and consumer products. These “forever chemicals” build up in living organisms, and do not easily break down once they appear in the environment. Scientific studies link specific PFAS to health hazards such as low infant birth weights, immunological and thyroid problems, and—in some cases—cancer.

History of PFAS Chemicals

Early products including PFAS chemicals included nonstick pans and waterproof textile coatings. Manufacturers also developed a PFAS chemical foam for fighting fire. The PFAS chemical foam (aqueous film-forming form, or “AFFF”) spread easily and quickly, allowing firefighters to extinguish fires quickly. AFFF foam is extremely effective against petroleum fires or fires involving other flammable liquids. AFFF foam was installed on military and civilian ships, and later on airplanes and in airports.

Today, PFAS appear in makeup, water-resistant outdoor clothing, and even microwave-popcorn bags. Grouped by their properties, PFAS chemicals include a broad group of chemicals with many different uses. In popular usage, though, people often refer to PFAS chemicals en masse. This confusion leads to simplification of the health concerns involved with PFAS. Studies link adverse health risks to only two classes of PFAS–perfluorooctanoic acid  (“PFOA”) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (“PFOS”). Scientists linked both PFOA and PFOS to adverse health effects in laboratory animals.

PFAS Chemicals: PFOA and PFOS

Most of the US population has PFOA in their blood. PFOA seeps into local water supplies, particularly in geographic areas surrounding military bases or manufacturing facilities. Once this happens, humans and animals ingest the PFOA through drinking water. The substance then builds up in the subject’s blood. High PFOA blood levels are associated with increased cholesterol levels and high uric acid levels. Due to health concerns, no manufacturing of either PFOA or PFOS chemicals currently occurs in the United States. Under the rules of the Environmental Protection Agency’s stewardship program (signed in 2006), PFOA and PFOS were phased out of the US market. However, both chemicals still persist in the environment, both because they do not degrade, and because they appear in products imported to the United States from other countries.