Overview of Perfluorochemical and Health: Environmental Health - Minnesota Dept. of Health

Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) and Health

Also referred to as Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)

PFCs are a family of manmade chemicals used for decades to make products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water.  PFCs are extremely stable and do not breakdown in the environment. Common uses include 1) nonstick cookware; 2) stain-resistant carpets and fabrics; 3) coatings on some food packaging (especially microwave popcorn bags and fast food wrappers); 4) components of fire-fighting foam; and 5) many industrial applications.

Our understanding of and ability to detect PFCs in the environment has evolved since Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) began investigating them in 2002. Laboratories at that time could not detect very low concentrations of PFCs and the science suggested that exposure to very small amounts of PFCs was not a health concern. We now are able to measure PFCs in extremely small amounts (parts per trillion in water) and newer studies suggest long-term exposure in this range might affect the health of the most vulnerable members of the population.

What do we know about PFCs in the environment?

In the environment: PFCs have been released to the environment through spills and disposal. Because PFCs are so stable, they may be found in soil, sediments, water or other places. Some PFCs travel through soil and easily enter groundwater where they may move long distances. Some experts suggest PFCs can also travel long distances in air. For information about where PFCs have been found in Minnesota, see the MPCA webpage: Perfluorochemicals.

In wildlife: PFCs have been found in wildlife around the world, including fish, bald eagles and mink in the mid-western United States. One PFC (PFOS) can accumulate to levels of concern in fish. Most fish have low levels of PFOS. However, fish in some lakes have levels of PFOS that require restrictive fish consumption advice of only one meal of fish per month. For information about PFOS and fish consumption guidelines, visit the MDH Fish Consumption Guidance webpage: Site-Specific Meal Advice

In Minnesota lakes and rivers: PFCs may be present in lakes and rivers at very low levels. Exposure 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. Breathing them in while swimming or bathing is not a health concern because there is very little evaporation of PFCs from water into the air.<

In people: Studies show nearly all people have some PFCs in their blood, regardless of their age. The PFCs most commonly found in blood are PFOS, PFOA, and PFHxS. People are exposed through food, water, dust or from using consumer products. Some PFCs can build up and stay in the body for many years, but they can slowly decline if the exposure source is removed. For information about studies by MDH that measured PFCs in the blood of East Metro residents, visit the MDH webpage: East Metro PFC Biomonitoring Follow-up Project.

Are PFCs harmful to people?

Scientists are still studying whether PFCs cause health problems. Researchers have found links between PFCs and some human health outcomes. In some studies, higher levels of PFCs in a person’s body were associated with higher cholesterol, changes to liver function, reduced immune response, thyroid disease, and kidney and testicular cancer. However, more work needs to be done to determine if PFCs cause health outcomes or if they are due to other factors. Studies of workers exposed to PFCs on the job have not found consistent evidence that these chemicals cause health problems.

In laboratory animal studies, effects of PFC exposure included developmental changes such as delayed bone growth, delayed mammary gland development, and accelerated male sexual development. Other effects of exposure included decreased body weight, increased kidney weight, changes to the liver, reduced immune response, and decreased thyroid hormone levels.

Recent studies indicate exposure to PFOA and PFOS could present a possible risk for developing fetuses and infants. Long-term exposure to PFOA and PFOS leads to accumulation of these chemicals in people. Accumulation in women of child-bearing age can result in exposure to the fetus and to breastfed infants. Breastfeeding is important for the short and long-term health of both a mother and infant.  MDH recommends that women currently breastfeeding, and pregnant women who plan to breastfeed, continue to do so.

Bottle-fed infants are also of concern because they drink more water for their body weight compared to older children and adults.

How does MDH protect Minnesotan’s drinking water?

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 works with the MPCA to investigate situations where groundwater contaminants may affect private wells.

In addition, MDH develops health-based guidance for drinking water contaminants. The guidance can be in the form of Health-Based Values (HBVs) or Health Risk Limits (HRLs). Visit the MDH webpage for information about Guidance Values and Standards for Contaminants in Drinking Water. MDH provides guidance for evaluating the safety of a mixture of chemicals that are found in groundwater. For more information, visit the MDH webpage:  Evaluating Concurrent Exposures to Multiple Chemicals.

Minnesota’s public water systems can use MDH health-based guidance as goals, benchmarks, or indicators of potential concern. Some public water suppliers may strive to meet health-based guidance for contaminants for which it is possible and cost effective.

MDH continues to monitor the growing body of science about PFCs and will adjust our health advice if further evidence suggests additional protection is needed in the future.

What levels of PFCs are safe to drink?

Because PFCs are known to be in the environment in Minnesota, MDH has developed drinking water guidance values for several PFCs to represent levels of chemicals in drinking water that MDH considers safe for people, including sensitive populations. The table below provides basic information about these values. More information for each PFC is on the MDH webpage:  Human Health-Based Water Guidance Table.

In May 2017, MDH released revised guidance values for PFOA and PFOS. The guidance values apply to short periods of time (i.e., weeks to months) during pregnancy and breastfeeding, as well as over a lifetime of exposure. The revision is based on the understanding that PFOA and PFOS stay in the human body for years and can increase with additional exposures, and can cross the placenta and are secreted in breastmilk.


PFCs Detected in Minnesota

Drinking Water Guidance Value
parts per billion (ppb or µg/L)

Year Value
Established

perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) (PDF)

0.027 ppb
(27 parts per trillion [ppt])

20171

perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) (PDF)

0.035 ppb
(35 parts per trillion [ppt])

20171

perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS) (PDF)

7 ppb

2011

perfluorobutanoic acid (PFBA) (PDF)

7 ppb

2011

perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS) (PDF)

Not established2

NA

perfluorohexanoic acid (PFHxA)

Not established3

NA

perfluoropentanoic acid (PFPeA)

Not established3

NA

1 Previous MDH guidance for PFOS and PFOA were established in 2009.  
2 MDH recommends using the health based value for PFOS (27 ppt) as a surrogate for PFHxS until more toxicological research on PFHxS is available. PFHxS remains in the body longer than PFOS and appears to be similar in toxicity.
3 Due to limited toxicological research, there is not enough scientific information to develop a guidance value.

Water with PFC levels above MDH guidance values is safe for bathing, showering or washing clothes and cleaning. To protect infants and young children who could be exposed in utero and early in life, water should not be used for drinking or cooking.

How can I reduce my exposures to PFCs?

PFCs are in people and animals all over the world. They are found in some food products and in the environment (air, water, soil, etc.). Completely stopping exposure to PFCs is unlikely. You can take the following steps to reduce your exposure to PFCs:

If you live near sources of drinking water contaminated with PFCs

Reverse osmosis and activated carbon filter treatment systems can reduce the levels of PFCs in drinking water. MDH has information about inexpensive and easy to use systems you can install in your home to reduce your exposure to PFCs through drinking water. You may choose to use bottled water for drinking and cooking for a short time, but long-term bottled water use will be more expensive than installing a treatment system. Information can be found on the following MDH webpages: 

Breastfeeding is important for the short and long-term health of both a mother and infant. MDH recommends that women currently breastfeeding, and pregnant women who plan to breastfeed, continue to do so.

  • If your drinking water comes from a private well, and you are breastfeeding or preparing infant formula, you may want to consider using filtered tap water or bottled water until a treatment systems is installed. More information about faucet filters and treatment systems can be found on the MDH webpage: Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) and Home Treatment.
  • If your drinking water comes from a public drinking water system, tap water can be used for cooking or drinking or preparation of infant formula. All affected community public drinking water systems have put in place interim measures that will provide drinking water at or below the new MDH health-based guidance.
  • More information about breastfeeding is found on the MDH webpage:  Breastfeeding

You can be exposed to PFCs through the food you eat.

For example, PFOS and PFOA can be present on crops due to environmental contamination and some food packaging may transfer PFOS to food items. PFOS may also be present in the fish people catch and eat. Fish Consumption Guidance for fish caught in areas affected by PFOS can be found on the MDH webpage: Site-Specific Meal Advice.

House Dust and PFCs

Interior sources of PFCs (e.g., consumer products) contribute most to PFCs in house dust. Ingestion of PFC-containing household dust can be a significant route of exposure, especially for infants and young children. Keeping floors and other surfaces free of dust will limit exposure. For more information, see the MDH webpage: Perfluorochemicals in Homes and Gardens Study Summary (PDF).

Printable Information Sheet

Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) and Health (PDF)

Contact MDH

Minnesota Department of Health
Site Assessment and Consultation Unit PO Box 64975,
St. Paul, MN (zip) 55164-0975
(phone) 651-201-4897 or toll-free 1-800-657-3908
health.hazard@state.mn.us
www.health.state.mn.us

Updated Thursday, June 29, 2017 at 01:54PM