Overview of Perfluorochemicals and Health
On this page:
What are Perfluorochemicals?
What do we know about PFCs in the environment?...in fish?...in people?
Are PFCs harmful?
What levels of PFCs are safe to drink?
How can I reduce my exposures to PFCs?
Printable information sheet
Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) are…
- A family of manmade chemicals that have been used for decades as an ingredient to make products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water.
- Extremely resistant to breakdown in the environment.
Common uses include:
perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS; C8F17SO3),
perfluorobutane sulfonate ( PFBS; C4F9C03),
perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA; C8F15O2H),
perfluorobutanoic acid (PFBA; C4F7O2H), and
perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS; C6F13SO3).
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- In the environment: Because PFCs are so stable, they may be found in soil, sediments, water or in other places. Studies indicate that some PFCs travel through soil and easily enter groundwater where they may move long distances. Some experts suggest that PFCs can also travel long distances in air, deposit on soil and leach into groundwater.
- In wildlife: PFCs have been found in the blood of many species of wildlife around the world, including fish, bald eagles and mink in the mid-western United States.
- In fish: PFOS is the PFC that accumulates to levels of concern in fish. Most fish have low levels of PFOS. However, some lakes have levels of PFOS that require restrictive fish consumption advice of only one fish meal per month. For information on the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) fish consumption guidelines, visit Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) and Fish.
- In Minnesota lakes and rivers: PFCs may be present in lakes and rivers at very low levels. MDH has determined that exposure to PFCs through swimming is not of concern. PFCs are poorly absorbed through skin and incidental ingestion of surface water while swimming will not result in a significant exposure. Also, because there is very little evaporation of PFCs from water into the air, breathing them in while swimming or bathing is not a health concern.
- In people: Studies show that nearly all people have some PFCs in their blood, regardless of age. The PFCs most commonly found in human blood are PFOS, PFOA, and PFHxS. People are exposed through food, water, or from using commercial products. Some PFCs stay in the human body for many years.
We still do not fully understand the human health effects of PFC exposure. Studies in animals have found changes in liver and thyroid function, increased tumors in certain organs, and reproductive problems. Most of these studies were at higher exposure levels than those found in humans, and comparing research findings in animals to human health effects can be difficult. Human studies have been done for a number of years in workers exposed to high levels of PFCs. These studies have not found consistent effects on health. Most of the studies did not involve women and none involved children.
More recently, studies have begun in the general population, including women and children. The C8 Study is the largest of these. It is studying a number of health outcomes in people exposed to high levels of PFOA in the Ohio River Valley. Full findings are expected in 2012. MDH will continue to monitor the growing body of science about PFCs and will provide a review of the health research findings to the community.Go to > top
MDH is responsible for ensuring safe drinking water for all Minnesotans. One way MDH does this is through regular testing of public water supplies for contaminants. MDH also investigates situations where groundwater contaminants may affect private wells.
Because PFCs are known to be in the environment in Minnesota, MDH has developed drinking water criteria, known as Health Risk Limits (HRLs) for PFOA, PFOS, PFBA, and PFBS. HRLs represent levels of chemicals in drinking water that MDH considers safe for people, including sensitive subpopulations.
The HRL values for these four PFCs are:PFOA: 0.3 micrograms per liter (µg/L)
PFOS: 0.3 micrograms per liter (µg/L)
PFBS: 7 micrograms per liter (µg/L)
PFBA: 7 micrograms per liter (µg/L)
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set similar short-term provisional health advisory values for PFOA and PFOS of 0.4 and 0.2 ug/L, respectively. These EPA advisory levels for drinking water are guidance values only.
- MDH continues to follow ongoing research activities on other PFCs of concern and may develop guidance if sufficient toxicological data becomes available. Levels of these other PFCs have been very low in area groundwater samples.
At this time, removing PFCs from water and following the fish consumption advice are the steps that people can take to reduce exposures to PFCs.
- Filters containing activated carbon or reverse osmosis membranes have
been shown to be effective at removing PFCs from water supplies. MDH has information about water treatment devices on the “Home Water Treatment Units: Point of Use Devices”. Use a reliable installer to insure proper installation, operation and maintenance of the water filter system which will work best for your needs.
- People can reduce their exposure to PFCs in fish by following the MDH’s Fish Consumption Advice. Fish are an excellent source of low-fat protein and most fish are healthy to eat. Special cleaning and cooking precautions used to reduce contaminants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that concentrate in fat are not effective with PFOS.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has started an initiative called the 2010/15 PFOA Stewardship Program to phase out use of PFOA entirely by 2015. In 2012, EPA signed a Significant New Use Rule for PFCs to limit their use and continues to evaluate the exposure to PFCs on children and other populations which are more likely to be more sensitive to PFC exposures. PFOA and PFOS production were eliminated by 3M in 2002.Go to > top
Fish Consumption: Frequently Asked Questions
Minnesota Department of Health: PFC Biomonitoring Projects
Presentation: Perfluorochemicals in Minnesota (PDF: 806KB/25 pages)
An overview of perfluorochemicals in Minnesota presented to the Minnesota Senate Environmental and Natural Resources Committee, February 27, 2006.
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency: Perfluorochemicals
Environmental Protection Agency: Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Fluorinated Telomers
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For more information, please contact us.
This information sheet was prepared with partial support from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). This statement does not imply that ATSDR has endorsed this information sheet.
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